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Empowerment is common to both the scholarly and the popular management literature. However, empowerment' s many interpretations have dulled the concept as a research tool. Here, empowerment is separated into perceived environment and individual behavior components. The linkage between organization environment and managerial behavior is tested with a population of 23 effective managers. It is found that an accepting or empowering environment increases the probability that the effective manager will undertake activities outside the job description, but that an empowering environment is not necessary for effective middle-manager behavior.
Empowerment--a mantra of the reinventing government movement--plays a significant role in participatory management and team management strategies, job enrichment programs, total quality management, and reengineering. The literature describes empowerment as delegation or devolution or sharing of power, authority, or responsibility by those higher in the organizational structure to those at lower levels of the organization.
Empowerment has been glorified as a many-splendored thing: Training is empowerment (Cusimano, 1995); making meaningful decisions is empowerment (Prolman, 1995); letting people do their jobs is empowerment (Covey, 1995); encouraging risk taking is empowerment (Story, 1995); allowing subordinate input into activities is empowerment (Cramer, 1995); sharing resources and information is empowerment (Blau & Alba, 1982). Empowerment results from self-actualization (O'Connell, 1995) and from the superior being considered fair (Keller & Dansereau, 1995).
Some empowerment research has focused on identifying and developing empowering managerial strategies (Bowen & Lawler, 1992; Ford & Fottler, 1995; Kanter, 1989; Lawler, 1986). The promised results of workplace empowerment include better decision making (Howard, 1994), improved effectiveness (Spreitzer, 1995), increased service or product quality (Baker, Field, Schroeder, & Sinha, 1996; Cross, Feather, & Lynch, 1994; Gilbert, 1991), increased productivity (Baker et al., 1996), improved strategic planning (Wall, 1995), creation of a high-performance organization (Mills, 1994), better leadership (Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Burke, 1986; Conger, 1989), increased capacity to handle organizational change (Kanter, 1983; Morgan, 1988), and innovation (Spreitzer, 1995; Osborne & Gaebler, 1992).
Empowerment presumably benefits the empowered employee, the supervisor, the work unit, the organization, and the nation. Golembiewski (1995) argues that empowerment creates a generative organizational environment by building flexibility, emphasizing learning, and enhancing trust and that empowerment is an appropriate central metaphor serving to further diversity. However, the meaning of the concept has blurred from indiscriminate use. The lack of rigorous conceptualization has made it difficult to verify the claims of success through empowerment. Nonetheless, the term continues to be a part of the management vocabulary, probably because the positive benefits promised by cultivating an empowered workforce have face validity among many managers and academics.(1)
Some research has addressed the complex nature of the concept and has attempted to sharpen the definition. Conger and Kanungo (1988) emphasize the personality or attitudes of the manager. They argue that management practices are a necessary but not sufficient condition for empowering employees; the subordinate's predisposition toward acting in an empowered manner needs to be considered. Thomas and Velthouse (1990) and Spreitzer (1995, 1996) have also defined empowerment as a personality characteristic of individuals.
Thomas and Velthouse (1990) set out the empowerment dimensions as aspects of a manager's personality: sense of meaning, sense of competence, sense of self-determination, and sense of impact. Later, Spreitzer (1995) operationalized each of these dimensions. Although these dimensions seem reasonable, they do not differentiate an empowered manager from a competent manager. Not only empowered managers, but any manager who is content with self and content with work environment is likely to self-score high on these dimensions. As a result, the manager who is empowered is not distinguished from the competent, unempowered manager. Empowered is not conceptually distinct from competent, and operationalizing the concept through self-report on a questionnaire compounds the challenge of concept validity as respondents describe themselves in glowing terms. Consequently, it is not surprising that Spreitzer (1995) reports consistent, modest correlations between competence and other empowerment dimensions but that she finds no relationship between competence and locus of control, which is an important indicator of willingness to take action contrary to established rules and norms. Therefore, empowerment as personality/attitude at present suffers from the fuzziness generally found in discussions of empowerment.
The empowerment construct also includes the behavior of the manager. Empowerment is defined as an active orientation to the work situation, managerial actions that go beyond the duties assigned in the employee's job description (Spreitzer, 1996).(2) Empowered behavior can be described as the ability to expand discretion, a quality Henry Mintzberg (1982) associates with leadership. The similarity of empowerment behaviors and leadership behaviors is implicit in the writing on both topics. However, observing the behaviors of a manager may not yield valid information. The behaviors may be aimed at doing what needs to be done to complete the assigned job, which would indicate empowerment. Alternatively, the manager's behavior may be motivated by the desire to comply with the directives of a superior, which would indicate compliance with authority--not empowerment. For Quinn (1996), the empowered manager is distinguished from the competent manager by breaking the rules and by asking for forgiveness rather than for permission. This demanding criterion for empowerment may be difficult to ascertain, for behavior alone is an inadequate measure of the empowerment construct.
Another aspect of empowerment involves the …