Perhaps by generating a clearer understanding of empowerment … some progress can be made.
Christensen Hughes (1999: 127).
Wilkinson (1998) points out that there is hardly any information on issues that may arise when implementing employee empowerment or the conditions that are necessary for such an approach to be successful. Similarly, Pearson and Chatterjee (1996: 17) highlight: ‘Overall, a great deal of interest has been shown for how empowerment works rather than how to make it work’. Furthermore, management has not paid attention to the impact such a radical change as employee empowerment might have on employees and the organisation. Hence, in practice: ‘… its application in organisational settings is fraught with misunderstanding and tension’ (Denham Lincoln et al, 2002: 271), leading to a frustration amongst managers (Ford and Fottler, 1995: 22).
Another added problem is that as the term employee empowerment lacks clarity in its definition, it is confused with other management practices, such as employee involvement and employee participation. Lashley (2001) observes: ‘… a critical analysis of the literature on empowerment does communicate an array of meanings…’ (p.ix). Hence, several authors are concerned about the interchangeable use of the term ‘employee empowerment’ with ‘employee involvement’ and ‘employee participation’. Lashley (2001: 49) argues that it is unwise to use these terms ‘interchangeably’ as it creates confusion. This begs the question: is employee empowerment a construct distinct from similar others, such as employee involvement or employee participation?
The popularity of the ‘empowerment era’ is highlighted by a number of authors (Belasco, 1989; Hardy and Leiba-O’Sullivan, 1998; Gandz, 1990; Jones and Davies, 1991; Ripley and Ripley, 1993; Denham Lincoln et al, 2002). Ripley and Ripley (1993: 29) emphasise that, ‘Empowerment is critically important in enabling … businesses and organisations to survive in this ever-expanding national and international marketplace’. Furthermore, a demand for quality and the need to provide customer satisfaction have added momentum to the need for employee empowerment at the work place (Block, 1987; Belasco, 1989; Gandz, 1990; Jones and Davies, 1991; Bowen and Lawler III, 1992; Shipper and Manz, 1992; Herschel and Andrews, 1993; Ripley and Ripley, 1993; Austen-Smith, 1994; Clement, 1994; Foy, 1994; Hopfl, 1994; Clutterbuck and Kernaghan, 1995; Thorlakson and Murray, 1996; Denham et al, 1997; Hammuda and Dulaimi, 1997; Wilkinson, 1998; Heslin, 1999; Houtzagers, 1999; Holt et al, 2000; Lee and Koh, 2001; Siegall and Gardner, 2000; Greasley et al, 2005).
It has been indicated earlier about the importance of employee empowerment placed in the SHRM literature, which strongly argues that if managers empower their employees to have more control over their work, take decisions and responsibility at the operational level, this will free managers to take decisions and responsibility at the strategic level, which in turn would lead to a more judicious utilisation of human resources at all levels. Furthermore, Hammuda and Dulaimi (1997) state: ‘Any company that cannot deliver to its customers the product and service with better quality, and at a faster pace and a lower price than that of its global competitors may soon be out of business.’ (p.289). Thus, the justification for this research is that, an important management practice, such as employee empowerment, necessary to the ‘survival’ of organisations, is deserving of extensive study, hence this research is valuable.
Lack of research
Despite virtues extolled for employee empowerment and the perceived need to implement it at the work place, there is concern in the management literature regarding the lack of published research findings, which has led to significant weaknesses and gaps in the existing body of knowledge.
Several authors are concerned about the paucity of research on employee empowerment, both at the theoretical and practical levels (Conger and Kanungo, 1988; Belasco, 1989; Thomas and Velthouse, 1990; Jones and Davies, 1991; Lashley and McGoldrick, 1994; Chiles and Zorn, 1995; Keller and Dansereau, 1995; Spreitzer, 1995; Hartline, 1996; Lashley, 1996; Spreitzer, 1996; Yoon et al, 1996; Thorlakson and Murray, 1996; Hammuda and Dulaimi, 1997; Wilkinson, 1998; Hales, 2000; Sigler and Pearson, 2000; Lee and Koh 2001 ; Denham Lincoln et al, 2002; Seibert et al, 2004; Greasley et al, 2005; Logan and Ganster, 2007). Hence, Conger and Kanungo (1988: 480) state: ‘Although empowerment has been discussed by several management scholars, little empirical work has been performed’. There are also significant concerns that the lack of research on employee empowerment has resulted in ‘…the divergence between the widespread rhetoric of empowerment and limited reality of empowerment programmes’ (Hales 2000: 501). Indeed, Morrell and Wilkinson (2002) caution that, ‘The term (empowerment) is complex and subject to different interpretations. The implications of this are that it will not be perceived in the same way by different organisations, nor will people within the same organisation think of empowerment in the same way’ (p.121). Thus, our understanding of employee empowerment is restricted in terms of both theory and practice (Conger and Kanungo, 1988: 471-472).
A number of management writers are also concerned about the lack of research with regards to the implications of employee empowerment for internal locus of control, self-efficacy and self-esteem of individuals, as these can help or hinder the employee empowerment process (Bandura, 1977; Elden, 1986; Gist, 1987; Conger and Kanungo, 1988; Hellriegel et al, 1989; Conger, 1989; Baron and Greenberg, 1990; Thomas and Velthouse, 1990; Dubrin, 1994; Johnson, 1994; Parker and Price, 1994; Bandura, 1995; Chiles and Zorn, 1995; Spreitzer, 1995; Hartline and Ferrell, 1996; Kappelman and Richards, 1996; Logan et al, 1996; Spreitzer, 1996; Yoon et al, 1996; du Gay and Salaman, 1998; Heslin, 1999; Baron and Byrne, 2000; Greenberg and Baron, 2000; Siegall and Gardner, 2000; Dessler, 2001; Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001; Lee and Koh, 2001; Bernstein, 2003; Seibert et al, 2004; Greasley et al, 2005; Logan and Ganster, 2007). One of the reasons why attention to internal locus of control, self-efficacy and self-esteem of individuals must be paid, is because these help to shape how individuals view themselves in relation to their work environments and their perceptions of their own capabilities (Spreitzer, 1995).
Clearly, the above discussion highlights the complexities, ambiguities and confusion surrounding employee empowerment, demonstrating that there is a need for an investigation into what employee empowerment means both in theory and practice, which is what this investigation was designed to find out. This thesis argues that if there is a lack of knowledge surrounding the employee empowerment construct, it is not going to be possible for organisations to implement it properly and the desirable results or outcomes argued in the SHRM literature, such as creative decision-making, problem-solving, taking responsibility – these are unlikely to materialise. Further, if organisations do not have employees who are able to take decisions and responsibility at the operational level, their managers will not be free to take decisions and responsibility at the strategic level, which in turn would not lead to the judicious utilisation of human resources in organisations. Hence, if organisations are serious about employee empowerment, firstly, they need the knowledge to understand what employee empowerment means, secondly, they also need to be clear what they are seeking to achieve via employee empowerment and thirdly how are they going to enable their employees to help them achieve whatever outcomes organisations are seeking.
There is concern by authors with regards to the gaps in the management literature about what employee empowerment means, which is exacerbated by the lack of clarity in the literature concerning whether or not employee empowerment is a construct distinct from similar ones such as employee involvement or employee participation. The lack of clarity with regards to these important issues led to the need for an investigation into what employee empowerment means in another discipline, namely the social work literature, where empowerment is central to social work theory and practice, ‘…without empowerment, it could be argued that something fundamental is missing from the social work being practised’ (Adams, 1996: 3).