The Care and Growth model is at odds with the common view when it comes to both the meaning of “empowerment” and with what the empowerment process itself entails.

The Care and Growth model challenges the notion that empowerment is synonymous with both employee participation and democracy, that it is possible to empower overnight and to separate empowerment from accountability.

Challenges to Conventional Wisdom and the Alternative

  • Empowerment is not the same as employee participation.

Participative management has been in vogue for many years now. It arose out of management’s recognition that there was a reservoir of good ideas among those lower in the ranks which was largely untapped and hence unavailable to the business.

The way to access this collective wisdom was through the implementation of employee involvement programs. Front line employees were thus fed details pertaining to real problems and their improvement suggestions presented to management for consideration.

In this sense, the empowerment of employees meant sharing information with them, which hitherto was the sole domain of management, and then listening to employee views and opinions on the data which had been given to them.

Employee empowerment, however, is much more than employee involvement. Real empowerment requires leadership to go beyond asking people for their opinion, listening to them and only then deciding. It means letting them decide and living with their decision even if it is contrary to the decision the leadership would have made.

By definition, then, it is simply not possible to give up authority but to still hold on to control. When authority is handed over so is control.

To truly empower, therefore, literally means to give up power. The corollary to the enfranchisement of employees is the disenfranchisement of management.

  • Empowerment is not the same as democracy.

Democracy occurs when people make decisions. Furthermore in a democratic system, where there is “one man one vote”, everyone is equal.

A precondition for empowerment however is inequality not equality. For those in authority to give up authority they have to have it in the first place!

Before power can empower and thus be legitimate, there has to be inequality between the subordinate and the superordinate.

This is true of anyone in authority, be they parents, teachers, coaches or managers. Without the requisite authority to do so, they cannot enable those in their charge.

When teachers lose the authority to discipline, then students can no longer learn. This is because the teacher can no longer teach; she is too busy trying to restore a vestige of order in the classroom.

Empowerment therefore is not about replacing autocratic behaviour with democratic behaviour since there is room for both in any legitimate relationship of power.

This can be seen quite clearly when one considers the boss one works for willingly. The “want to” boss can behave in a soft and democratic manner; by listening, being approachable, supportive and sympathetic. Equally she can act in an autocratic way by setting direction, assigning responsibility, taking disciplinary action and so on.

Those on the receiving end of the “want to” boss’s autocratic behaviour are nevertheless prepared to accept this behaviour without question. This is because they intuit that the reason for the autocratic behaviour is related to their enablement. The boss is being tough with them with their highest self interest in mind.

Autocratic control in other words is entirely legitimate; but only when it is seen to be subordinate to the intention to empower.

  • Empowerment is not an instantaneous process.

There is a misconception that people are either empowered or they are not. In other words, that control either sits in one person’s (the manager) hands or in another person’s (the subordinate) hands. The handover of control is somehow instantaneous. Nothing could be further from the truth.

At one extreme the imposition of control, coupled with an intention to never let go, is clearly disenabling. It is akin to insisting on always holding the infant’s hand. The toddler will never learn to walk.

At the same time the instantaneous and total suspension of all control is also disempowering. Letting go of the child’s hand and standing in the far corner of the room, even though the child cannot yet walk on its own, is equally disenabling. In both cases the young person will be rendered unable to walk.

What is enabling in this context is for the adult to start out holding the child’s hand, then to let go but stand close by, finally stepping back to let the child walk alone. In other words what is enabling is not an instantaneous, total suspension of control, but rather an incremental suspension of control.

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