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Empowerment in the Workplace

Workers’ self-management represents a third way in industrial relations and in this era of “rolling back the frontiers of the state” is a valid alternative to government control and capitalist gigantism. The idea of people literally employing themselves, taking communal responsibility for their working lives, would seem obvious good sense to anyone raised in a pre-capitalist society. In the industrial age, however, it has had a chequered history. Co-operatives, which depend on consensus and discussion, have often found themselves between corporate giants and “state capitalist” enterprises, where management and unions carve out their own fiefdoms…. the Triumph motorcycle stood no chance against the Kawasaki.

In the recent past, the boldest experiments in workers’ self-management have taken place in post-colonial societies seeking a distinctive political and economic model. Tito’s Yugoslavia, Gadaffi’s Libya and Algeria under the FLN are the examples that spring to mind, but in all those cases workers’ participation took place against a backdrop of political repression which made genuine “autonomy” impossible. More recently, native peoples have started forming co-operatives whose principles integrate their tribal pasts with today’s economic pressures. This process of “modernisation on our own terms” is reflected in some of Australia’s Aboriginal farms and the eco-tourist co-operatives run by Indians in Peru and Ecuador. These experiments will be watched with interest by ethnologists and “third way” economists alike.

In the West, the idea of workers’ self-management has always been the Cinderella of industrial relations theory. But there is evidence today that it is being reinvented under the more nebulous guise of “empowerment”. Empowerment has been defined in different ways. Some have claimed it is “a fundamentally different way of working together” and “quite different from the traditional notion of control”. Empowerment is seen as a way of giving people more opportunity or “power” to exercise control over, and have responsibility for, their work. It is intended to encourage individuals to use their abilities by enabling them to take decisions.

Others are more sceptical. Armstrong (1996:79) points out that: “Empowerment, for example, may mean little more than giving employees the opportunity to make suggestions for change.” This question of how far control is transferred to workers is vital to an understanding of empowerment. Strauss (1979) distinguishes between three different types of participation models. These models are consultative participation: co-management and workers’ self-management.

In the case of joint consultation, managers have the final say. Workers have a right to information and are allowed to offer advice and objections. Within Europe works councils originally followed this model. In the pure form of co-management parties have equality of power and the consent of each side is required before action can be taken. Workers self-management is typified (in principle) by the former Yugoslav self-management system. This was introduced in 1950 and maintained up to 1985. Under this system, the assets of an enterprise were owned, not by the state or private owners, but by society as a whole. The communal kibbutz organisation and producers cooperatives elsewhere in which workers or their representatives have final authority are other examples.

In practice, empowerment is intended to release active employee engagement only so long as it falls within the parameters for which it was selected as a strategy. In most organisations it is management which defines and adjudicates and ultimately exercises control. Brown and Brown (1994:49) tell us bluntly, that: “The core purpose of the organisational process is control.” Ogden (1982:547) states that the aim is to secure “more compliant and supportive responses from employees to managerially defined purposes and achievement of managerially defined goals”. The concept of empowerment is intended to encourage a sense of common purpose which replaces the need for a direct hierarchical exercise of control. Ramsay (1977,1983) has studied the cyclical nature of workers participation schemes and interpreted this in terms of a management response to challenges from labour over the control of the labour process and over the distribution of value created through that process.

Some argue for empowerment as an objective in its own right as a means of extending worker satisfaction. This can be related to the concept of Quality of Working Life (QWL). It refers primarily to how efficiency of performance depends on job satisfaction, and how to design jobs to increase satisfaction , and therefore performance. The early psychological basis of QWL and of justifications of empowerment relating to increased worker motivation was Herzberg (1968). Herzberg developed a theory called the two factor theory of motivation.Earlier studies by Brayfield and Crockett (1955:346-424) and Vroom had concluded that there was scant evidence of a marked correlation between satisfaction and performance. Herzberg took a different view.

Herzberg argued that job factors could be classified as to whether they contributed primarily to satisfaction or dissatisfaction. There are conditions which result in dissatisfaction amongst employees when they are not present. If these conditions are present, this does not necessarily motivate employees. Second there are conditions, which when present in the job, build a strong level of motivation that can result in good job performance. These include :

The work itself
The possibility of growth
Dunnette et al (1967:147) say it is “a grossly over simplified portrayal of the mechanism by which job satisfaction or dissatisfaction comes about” . Other critics (e.g. Korman (1967;147)), focus on Herzberg’s methodology. Can people be aware of all that motivated or dissatisfied them and bias of “recency of events” of being asked to recall most recent conditions and feelings towards them.

The most serious criticism in my view; Lawler (1973:72) is that little attention is actually given towards testing motivational and performance implications. In the original study, self-reports of performance were used. In fact researching a group of 200 accountants and engineers, Herzberg used interview responses to questions like “Can you describe in detail when you feel exceptionally good about your job?”

The latest research findings from Ed Lawler (1995) suggest, however, that employee involvement can improve company results. The study looked at the effects of self-managing work teams and union and management committees.

Self-managing work teams are where a group becomes responsible for its own organisation once output and quality targets have been agreed. The role of the supervisor changes dramatically. Such teams are seen as empowering as workers can :

Have opportunities to set standards of quantity and quality of production and obtain suitable feedback regarding results.

Feel to some degree that they are their own bosses. They are involved in discussion and decision making, accountability and responsibility.

Experience variety. As Biddle & Evenden (1980:184) point out :
“Because the group is concerned with a whole process, involving a range of tasks and skills, a greater opportunity exists for each member to experience a variety of tasks.”

Perceive a contribution to product utility and thus gain a sense of purpose.

View the job as a meaningful pattern of tasks so that this can be viewed as a “whole”.
Apart from the early work of Herzberg the theoretical underpinning of all this derives from a model advanced by Hackman and Oldham (1975). They suggested that a well motivated, productive, satisfied and committed worker was one who :

Believes work is meaningful
Has knowledge about the results of his/her activities
Experiences a sense of responsibility for work outcomes
This emphasis on the group has been taken a stage further in Japan. Hatvany and Pucik (1983) state :

In Japan, group autonomy is encouraged by avoiding any reliance on experts to solve operational problems. One widely used group based technique for dealing with such problems is quality control (QC) circles. A QC circle’s major task is to pinpoint and solve a particular workshops problem. Outside experts are called in only to educate group members in the analytical tools for problem solving or to provide a specialised technical service.Otherwise, the team working on the problem operates autonomously, with additional emphasis on self-improvement activities that will help achieve group goals. Fostering motivation through direct employee participation in the work process design is a major consideration in the introduction of QC circles and the introduction of similar activities to the factory floor.

Lawler suggested that policies aimed at involving workers were more effective when reinforced by other factors. There is considerable evidence which suggests that the success of Japanese methods is rooted not in any one technique but in their mutual reinforcement within a consistent set of policies. How far policies aimed at empowerment are integrated into such an overall strategy in practice is questionable.

Parameters for “empowerment” are often limited in practice to suggestion schemes, financial participation, or a margin of control over health and safety problem identification, for instance.These restricted parameters are reported in the studies by Cunningham et al. (1996) and, for the hospitality industry, by Lashley and McGoldrick (1994) In addition the actual implementation of policies aimed at empowerment is surprisingly low. Lawler’s research (1995) which was based on a sample of US Fortune 1000 companies showed little change in the six years preceding the study in the amount of information shared with employees. In particular he highlighted the failure to reveal competitors relative performance. Although there had been a significant increase in self-managing work teams (from 28 per cent in 1987 to 46 per cent in 1990 and 67 per cent in 1993, the employees covered by such schemes actually covered less than 10 per cent of the Fortune 1000 workforce.

However, within the EU, empowerment is on the agenda. The effects of the “social dimension” of initiatives, particularly since the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in November 1993, are likely to be considerable. The Social Chapter proposes a series of employee rights, including initiatives on information, participation and consultation. This approach runs counter to that prevailing in the UK and in government policy throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, which emphasised involvement in forms and degrees determined by management. Yet participation was described by the former President of the EU, Jacques Delors, as the most important element of the Social Charter. Legislation for European Works Councils, which will impact on many large UK firms despite the UK opt-out, has already been passed and came into force from September 1996.

That such ideas are coming to the fore among economists and managers is a sign of a sea-change in the way that “work” is viewed. Increasingly, we are moving beyond the idea of a carefully demarcated “job” that is isolated from the rest of life — the ‘alienation of production’ decried by the young and more libertarian Marx. The failure of state control, the iniquities and uncertainties of corporate capitalism (where have all the “Tigers” gone?) are making co-operative models attractive once again.

One of the paradoxes of “globalisation” is that its accompanying technological change make smaller units of production — and political administration — possible. There are more separatist movements in the world than ever before, and they use the Internet as much as the ballot and far more than the Armalite. In the same way, teleworking and IT-based cottage industries are breaking the distinctions between ‘work’ and ‘life’ to almost pre-capitalist levels. Used wisely, this technology could prove that small is beautiful and large is not inevitable. The libertarian aims of William Morris, the arts and crafts movement, Guild Socialism and the “volkisch” movements (before they were perverted into fascism) might now be realised through the very process of change that these idealists decried.

Empowerment, workers’ autonomy, or third way economics — call it what you will, it threatens the vested interests of capital and state, unions and management alike. When they come up against the reality of industrial relations, many members of the Far Left brought up on myths of class struggle are bewildered by the tactical alliance between unions and bosses. Tony Cliff, the Socialist Workers party ideologue, recounted the story of a wildcat strike in which the union shop steward is sent to “reason” with the workers. “What do you want?” he asks them. “We want the revolution!” they reply. Ummm, says he, “Management would never agree to that…”

There is a spectre haunting bureaucracy — the spectre of true empowerment.



Biddle, Derek & Evenden, Robin (1980) Human Aspects of Management, Institute of Personnel Management.

Brayfield, A.H. & Crockett, W.H. (1955) Employee attitudes and employee performance, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 52.

Dunnette, Martin; Campbell, John and Hakel, M. Factors contributing to Job Dissatisfaction on Six Occupational Groups, Organisational Behaviour and Human Performance, May 1967.

Hackman, J.R. and Oldham, G.R. Development of the Job Diagnostic Survey, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol.60 (1975), 159-70.

Hatvany, N. and Pucik, V. (1983) Japanese Management Practices and Productivity; in Contemporary Problems in Personnel, John Wiley and Sons.

Herzberg, Frederick; Mausner, B. and Synderman, B. (1959) The Motivation to Work, John Wiley and Sons.

Korman, Abraham K. (1971) Industrial and Organisational Psychology, Prentice-Hall.

Lawler, Edward E. III. (1973) Motivation in Work Organisations, Cole Publishing.

Ogden, S.G. (1982) Trade unions, industrial democracy and collective bargaining, Sociology 16 : 544-63.

Ramsay, H. (1977) Cycles of control: worker participation and historical perspectives, Sociology 11 : 481-506.

Vroom, V. Work and Motivation, Wiley, New York.

People Management : Research shows value of quality and involvement, June 15 1995.


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