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Does Employee Empowerment Endanger Managers?

October 26, 2015

employee empowerment

It is probably safe to say that the typical working manager is looked on more with toleration than with acceptance by workers.  The “boss” is grudgingly endured by the average underling who may covertly complain about the absence of raises or the withholding of good assignments.  It is not surprising then that, from time to time, schemes are introduced that seek to eliminate the manager altogether.  Most involve either some form of employee empowerment or team formation that delegates a substantial range of decision making down to the working level.

Holacracy, a current iteration on this theme that has been introduced, is said to free workers from all direct supervision to become members of “democratic assemblies” called circles.  Workers in circles decide how to perform their jobs within the constraints of a self-governance “constitution.”  There appears to be little difference between “assemblies” and work teams that were extensively studied, researched, documented and practiced in the decade of the 1970s.  The major departure from tradition appears to be the intent to fully delegate the choice of what circles are needed, who should be included in them, what their jobs should be and even when they should disband.  The reins are not merely relaxed, they are fully removed.

Employee empowerment of this extent has been tried in various forms in the past.  Subjected to such intense delegation of responsibility, employees typically complain that their pay has not been adjusted to account for the added responsibility involved.  Concern is voiced over how promotions will be assigned.  Managers at uppermost levels, titled such or not, still must set the terms of reward allocation but may be unable to differentiate superior talent from mediocrity in the mish-mash of worker activity.  Accountability for seriously bad decisions may be very difficult to pin down, and the undesirable consequences of mistakes can cascade into a flood before it is obvious that the organization has lost its way.

It is inherent in the manager’s role that risks will be taken and employee performance will be judged.  Much of the resentment toward the manager’s job arises out of the judgmental part of the job.  It is easy to overlook the fact that the manager is subject to the toughest judgement.  Being a good boss is not easy, and may be impossible in dealing with some worker personalities.   Eliminating the job of manager and empowering employees can mute the problem of judgement for employees, but only at the expense of increasing the potential for personal conflicts and dominance struggles within the “democratic assembly.”  The effective manager is a judge and a referee, as well as a mentor and trainer.  Eliminating the manager position abandons employees to rediscover old lessons the hard way and on their own.

Employee empowerment movements are always predicated in part on the thrust to eliminate status differences and bring greater equality into work relationships.  Skill and aptitude are, nonetheless, important variables in the performance equation.  The manager’s job includes assessing skill and aptitude in all immediate subordinates so as to allocate them effectively.  Being a good manager simply means doing that job competently and fairly.  It is unthinkable that a baseball team would self-manage itself or a football team self-coach itself.  Someone has to be in charge, accountable and responsible for performance.  Employee empowerment schemes that seek equality for all fail to recognize the centrality of the manager’s role to business effectiveness.  The best program of worker empowerment is one that enhances their manager’s competence.

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About The Author

Glenn Bassett holds a baccalaureate degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a doctorate in Management from Yale University. His most recent book is The Manager’s Craft, distributed by New Shelves Distribution Service. For over a quarter century he was a member of the University of Bridgeport Business School faculty and for eight of those years he was Dean of the School. In an earlier career as a Personnel manager he developed personnel policy and carried out major labor relations research projects as a member of the General Electric corporate staff. Earlier yet he served as human resource manager and management development consultant for GE’s Apollo Systems Support Operation in Daytona Beach, Florida. He is author of twelve published books, three invited chapters in edited books, and numerous professional journal articles. He and his wife, Lolly, make their home on Rogers Lake in Lyme, CT.

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