I. Contemporary Empowerment-Disempowerment Debates

In this section we briefly review the HR empowerment perspective, and then summarize the positions of its critics. These critics include contemporary post-positivist writers, and some following in the postmodern tradition. So-called "postmodern" critiques encompass a range of approaches, variously termed affirmative and skeptical (Rosenau, 1992), critical postmodern (the present authors, among others), and critical theorist (whom some consider as separate from postmodernists, as do Alvesson and Deetz, 1997). In general, critical theorist writers are the most harshly skeptical of empowerment plans. In this paper, we (authors) take a mid-range position, which we would call critical postmodernist. Critical postmodernism "borrows from critical modernism, as well as epoch and epistemological postmodernism" (Boje, Fitzgibbons, & Steingard, 1996: 61).

HR Empowerment. Human Relation (HR) empowerment advocates take management prerogatives of control over corporate objectives and ownership concentration as givens, while focusing on a narrow range of suggested HR empowerment practices for workers. Most argue that to be empowered is a feeling or belief that a person can direct the organization toward desired performance ends (Albrecht 1988: 38). For example, W. L. Gore & Associates have a lattice structure to decentralize power and empower partners, who influence and are influenced by the organization (Pacanowsky, 1988: 371). In the lattice organization structure "1) Lines of communication are direct from person to person, with no intermediary, 2) There is no fixed or assigned authority, 3) There are no bosses, only sponsors, 4) Natural leadership is defined by followership, 5) Objectives are set by those who must make them happen. 6) Task and functions are organized through commitments" (Manz & Sims, 1993: 138). Gore has associates, not employees, and uses empowerment terms like "unmanagement" and "self-leadership" to explain situations of high performance in employee work teams organized in 44 facilities of 150 to 200 employees each (Manz & Sims, 1993: 131-134). Gore has profit sharing and associates' stock ownership option plans.

Workers are not the only ones being educated and trained to perceive themselves as empowered. Spreitzer (1995, 1996) studied how structural characteristics mediated middle managers' psychological experience of empowerment. Another question needing to be raised is that of the actual deployment of employee voice in corporate governance. Borman (1988) concludes empowered workers have a voice in understanding sagas and interpreting the organization and its goals. Elden and Levin (1991) argue that action research is a way of empowering participants to voice concerns to management. Putnam, Phillips, and Chapman's (1996: 390) review of empowerment literature summarizes: "Empowerment is the use of voice to provide active participation and commitment to organizational members." According to another view, "Empowerment is power sharing, the delegation of power or authority to subordinates in the organization" (Daft, 1995: 411). Is there any difference between older concepts of delegation and today's empowerment? Daft (1995: 412) does say that delegation or empowerment increases the total amount of power in organizations, and that power growth results from "getting employees committed" to their jobs and to the organization. Conger and Kanungo (1988) and Fleming's (1991) review reaches similar conclusions about how good things happen to organization performance when employees perceive themselves to be more empowered. The HR empowerment writers also argue that the idea of giving up centralized control, in favor of delegation, is rooted in attempts to be more organically adaptive and efficient in environments that reward speed and flexibility.

Critiques of Empowerment Critiques of empowerment range from mild to harsh. Some milder critiques come from Boje, Gephart, Thatchenkery (1996), Clegg (1990), Hatch (1997), Hirshhorn (1997), and Mills and Simmons (1995). These perspectives seek solutions including activism, spirituality, direct democratic governance, hybrid forms of modern and postmodern design, and ecological sustainability. Between the milder "affirmative" postmodernists (Rosenau, 1992) and the harsher critical theory approaches are writers from a critical postmodern perspective (including the present authors). Their focus is on democratic governance by labor and management, including a critique of over-production and hyper-consumption, and an ecocentric analysis of corporate practices (Hassard, (1996); Hatch, 1997; Best & Kellner, 1997; Boje, Gephart, & Thatchenkery, 1996; Boje & Dennehy, 1993).Clegg (1990) and Boje and Dennehy (1990) incorporate the Foucauldian argument that in any truly democratic society or workplace, the individual experiences domination unless he/she has the ability to "use and develop their essentially human capacities" (Patton, 1998: 70). For Foucault, the body is trained to be the subject of disempowerment while perceiving itself to be empowered. This may constitute a form of hegemony, where the dominated are willing participants in their own domination. Without addressing these hegemonic (unseen areas of domination) aspects of organization, empowerment is rendered as its opposite. Harsher challenges come from a critical theory perspective, whose authors contend that the current writing on self-management, lattice, and postmodern organization, is really about illusions of power. Jacques (1996: 141) points out that "Feeling empowered is not the same as being empowered" (p. 141). Empowerment, they argue, does not occur in a vacuum, but within relations of power. These critics question the motives of empowerment, the possibility/advisability of bestowing power, and a few (Alvesson & Willmott, 1996, Collins, 1997) have their own program, "emancipation." They distinguish passively-bestowed empowerment from emancipation, which involves an active effort for self-determination (Alvesson & Willmott, 1996:162).

Parker and Slaughter (1988) see a clever language game at work, transforming delegation into empowerment. Similarly, Boje and Dennehy (1993: 204-205) argue "Is it empowering to be able to turn in a suggestion? " "Empowerment" they argue (1993: 270) "means that you were somehow disempowered" then "they usually hand you a stack of work to do." Others question whether conditioning workers to internalize organizational goals, is empowerment (Barker 1993; Parker 1993; Clegg & Hardy, 1996). In a widely cited ethnographic study of empowered work teams, Barker (1993) documented unanticipated/unintended disempowerment outcomes. In his study, moving to a decentralized control strategy made workers more subject to peer influence control and less able to resist managerial control.

In sum, the harsher critics support different ontological foundations for what constitutes a liberated society. They focus on worker alienation from ownership of the means of production, and look at the extractive power of one social class over another through control of the labor process (Braverman, 1974). These critics are skeptical of institutional empowerment programs that do not address material conditions of domination. Traditional HR empowerment approaches free people only insofar as they are pursuing corporate objectives as can be found in the QWL, Human Relations, and Corporate Culture movements. As critical postmodern theorists, we ask whether organic adaptive or lattice structures are the same as democratic control? Notwithstanding Manz & Sims (1993) acknowledgement of the disempowering potential present in empowerment programs, the HR empowerment side of the debate does not address the possibilities of disempowerment, is not rooted in industrial democracy, and is accused of being anti-democratic. The origins of these critiques trace back to the history of the workplace democracy movement, and provide a context for Follett's views of power.


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This paper proceeds From Title/Abstract  through 7 steps: (1) briefly reviewing the current empowerment-disempowerment debate; (2) contextualizing Mary Parker Follett's work with a review of the democratic workplace movements of Marxist socialism, trade unionism, guilds, cooperatives, and non-union workers' councils; (3) discussing Follett's theory of co-active power circularity, with its roots in Hegel's and Dewey's philosophy; (4) summarizing Clegg's circuits of power theory; (5) combining Follett's power-as-capacity concept with Clegg's circuits of power in an assimilative reading we term "co-power," which can move us beyond today's empowerment-disempowerment duality; (6) drawing implications for organizational development and change practices regarding co-power as a way of linking micro and macro issues; and (7) offering conclusions regarding co-power as a way of increasing the effectiveness of organizational change efforts. (And References).