Dr Rozana Huq
An Investigation of What Employee Empowerment Means in Theory and in Practice (2008)
Social work Abstract
The knowledge gained from the management literature review proved unsatisfactory, and I decided to draw further knowledge from literature within another discipline, namely social work, where empowerment is an important construct. In social work, ‘the practice of empowerment is now a central paradigm…’ (Adams, 1996: p.xv) and a ‘goal for client groups’ Frans (1993: 312).
A paradigm shift in the practice of social work is steadily moving towards empowerment. The reasons for this are discussed in my thesis, followed by an exploration of the concept of empowerment in social work. Key aspects of empowerment that are largely missing in the management literature are also examined. An important point emphasised in social work literature is that just by telling people they are empowered does not necessarily produce results; there must be strategies to enable employees to be and feel empowered. Empowerment is, therefore, a process (Adams, 1990; Beresford and Croft, 1993; Frans, 1993) that enables people to take greater control of their lives. This important conceptualisation is not strongly emphasised in the management literature.
Parsloe (1996: 56) states: ‘It is the conception of power that gives life to empowerment….’
Without the sharing of power, empowerment in social work is viewed as having no meaning. The reason why disempowered and oppressed people find themselves powerless is because they lack control over the decisions and the resources that affect their lives. In this sense, empowerment must be viewed as an anti-oppressive practice, that is, to remove or reduce as far as possible, the oppressive circumstances that service users may face. Therefore, practitioners need to make sure that, through the sharing of power, service users can make decisions, particularly those that affect their life situations (Denney, 1998; Means et al, 2003). In the context of empowerment it is abundantly clear that powerless people need to gain control over the factors that keep them in a state of oppression. However, without the mobilisation of power, the issue of powerlessness cannot be addressed, as Staub-Bernasconi (1991) argues: ‘Empowerment means the mobilization of any power source for pursuing legitimate needs and goals’ (p.47). In the management literature the concepts of power and oppression are rarely examined so, in this respect, the social work literature is an important vehicle through which to learn about disempowerment.
There is high consensus in the social work literature that empowerment can enable people to achieve control in their lives and to achieve their goals (Adams, 1990; Frans, 1993). In practice, empowerment in social work is viewed by individuals, groups and/or communities as a way of taking control of their lives, thereby achieving empowerment from within (Parsons, 1991). Hence, individuals need to be enabled to overcome feelings of helplessness and despair through measures that increase confidence, the internal locus of control, self-efficacy and self-esteem, (Bandura, 1977; Kieffer, 1984; Rappaport, 1987; Conger and Kanungo, 1988). From Kieffer’s (1984: 32) study, it is enlightening to note, from the psychological perspective, how participants did not view themselves as “having more power,” but rather as “feeling more powerful” (Kieffer’s emphasis).
An important aspect of empowerment, which is given much greater prominence in the social work literature than in the management literature, is the proposition that empowerment comes from within, and that people need to believe and feel that they are empowered. Hence, employee initiatives in organisations are unlikely to produce the desired results unless employees believe themselves to be, and feel, empowered.
It is also useful to take into account Kieffer’s (1984) point that empowerment is not just about learning new skills, it is also about ‘… (individuals) reconstructing and reorienting deeply engrained personal systems of social relations’ (p.27). Thus, empowerment is about change on several levels. For example, it is, about people learning new behaviours and new skills, and new ways of interacting with other people, the environment, social conditions and systems that may be oppressive. As Freire (1972) argues, it is about the development of critical consciousness, and the ability to think against the status quo that enables people to act together, to change oppressive social conditions. The process of liberation, freedom and empowerment is through education and consciousness-raising of individuals and groups. The corollary of this is the absence of empowerment which leads to alienation, helplessness and feelings of powerlessness (Rappaport, 1984).
A review of employee empowerment in the social work literature has been a valuable exercise in order to bridge some of the gaps in knowledge in the management literature. For those organisations genuinely interested in employee empowerment, access to knowledge drawn from the social work literature may help to remove some of the ambiguity surrounding the construct, and provide an insight into what empowerment might mean at both the conceptual and practice levels.