It's not just semantics LO6240

Dave Birren, MB-5, 608-267-2442 (
Tue, 26 Mar 1996 10:33 CST

Esteemed colleagues:

I met yesterday with my agency's senior management team to review the
concept of empowerment and get their agreement to use it as a basis for
developing various management processes. Attached is the description we
talked about, for anyone interested in it. Basically, the group liked the
concepts, but they have trouble with the term "empowerment".

We have a long, though somewhat spotty, tradition of what we call
delegation and participative management, but neither of those terms
captures the sense of two-way accountability that empowerment means. Does
anyone out there have a better word or phrase to express it?




A Definition of Empowerment

Empowerment (one possible definition): The quality of the relationship
between management and staff characterized by management's providing, and
staff accepting, the authority, responsibility and resources necessary to
perform a complete set of tasks.

Empowerment rests on three basic concepts: direction, freedom and support.
If one is removed, the other two lose their meaning and empowerment no
longer exists.

1. *Direction* is the charge or mission, the statement that tells the
workers what is needed. It includes definitions of desired outcomes,
quality specifications, and enough other information to make it clear
what is desired.

2. *Freedom* is the ability of the workers to do the job they have been
given. It includes the latitude to make operational decisions within
the boundaries of the charge, without being second-guessed or undercut
by the managers.

3. *Support* is providing the resources necessary to do the job. It
includes managers accepting work products and implementing decisions
that are consistent with the direction provided, even if they disagree
with the details.

Role Definitions Under an Empowerment Model

Traditional management theory assigns roles to individuals at different
levels of an organization, with increasing levels of responsibility and
decreasing levels of detail orientation, the higher one goes in the
organization. The following roles may be inferred from the foregoing
definition of empowerment. (Note: the following language refers to state
agencies but the meaning is transferable to any kind of organization.)

- Top level: This comprises the executives and the senior managers
operating as a group. Its primary perspective is at the organizational
level and it is not concerned with the operation of any particular
subunit. Its role is to establish the required needs and priorities of
the organization as a whole, including parameters for assuring that the
organization whole complies with legal requirements and that there is
integration among its elements. When designing management processes,
this mean setting guidelines for the system as a whole and then backing
away from the details.

- Mid-level: This comprises individual members of the senior management
group, operating at the level of their units, typically divisions and
geographic subdivions. Their primary perspective is at the major unit
level (division, region, etc.), rather than the organizational level.
Their primary role is that of a linking mechanism between those
providing direction and those doing the work. This level has several
responsibilities: to identify, assemble and structure the right
resources; to set the specific direction for the workers within the
scope of the divisional and regional environments (translating general
direction into specific guidance); and to provide feedback to the top
level . This reflects the traditional roles of middle managers as
conduits for information and authority.

Front-line level: This level covers organizational units that deal with
day-to-day work. Their primary perspective is at the subunit level,
with the primary focus of developing operational processes that meet the
requirements set forth by the first two levels, using their knowledge of
customer needs and internal operations. They have several respon-
sibilities: to understand the criteria set forth by the top level; to
evaluate their work processes and customer needs; to assure that
integration is built into their work as appropriate; to provide products
and services that meet the requirements established by the first two
levels; to meet operating objectives through effective and efficient
systems; and to assure the continued or improved satisfaction of
customer needs.

Other Behavioral Implications

Under an empowerment model, providing support means that no decision is
ever reversed by anyone without the participation of the person or group
who made the decision in the first place. Not only does this enable the
person considering the reversal to learn more about the situation, but it
also reinforces the empowerment concept by sending a clear message of trust
and respect. The only exception to this is a bona fide emergency, where
there is no time to review the change before it is made. And even then,
the decision-maker must be involved as soon as possible after the event;
not just informed, but brought into the issue to deal with the

A Few Tests of Empowerment

The following questions are offered in the spirit of providing practical
assistance to managers who are serious about sustaining an empowered work

Do those who depend on you for resources feel they have the resources
they need to do their work? If there are insufficient resources to go
around, do they understand the reasons they're short - and do they have
the authority to prioritize their work?
Do you change decisions made by those below you? Do people bring these
issues to you? Do they think you'll do something about them? If so,
what is it about your behavior or style that encourages them?
Are you willing to listen and humbly act on what you hear, without
retribution, shooting the messenger, or exerting control in a way that
diminishes others' proper roles?
Do you tend to "circle the wagons" in times of stress, or do you open up
to new information?



David E. Birren Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources Phone 608-267-2442 Fax 608-267-3579

* ** *** There is no excuse for being uncivilized. ( D.H.Birren) *** ** *

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