Freedom of Speech: Construct for Creating a Culture Which Empowers Organizational Members

By Haskins, William A. | The Journal of Business Communication, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Speech: Construct for Creating a Culture Which Empowers Organizational Members


Haskins, William A., The Journal of Business Communication


Do the following comments sound familiar? "You should never question the boss."; "People are afraid to speak up at meetings."; or "No one wants to listen to my ideas anyway."? What these and similar comments share is a fundamental belief in the lack of freedom to communicate effectively. And central to this belief is the perception of a worker's lack of empowerment to participate meaningfully in an organization, resulting in a weakening of commitment between the organizational member and the workplace (Gorden & Infante, 1991). This perception can manifest itself in numerous ways. Workers may perceive a lack of empowerment when being denied access to critical information by management. Workers may develop a similar perception when denied an opportunity to give input on matters directly affecting them. Whyte's (1957) famous "organizational man" concept underscores a worker's sense of lack of empowerment to communicate freely with a critical mind. More recent information reveals that the number of women entering managerial slots is increasing, but though they are getting more impressive sounding titles, they often lack the power exhibited by their male counterparts (Reskin, 1993). Whatever the reason, the inhibiting of free expression in the workplace diminishes a worker's sense of empowerment, which in turn can diminish the level of productivity and commitment of the worker.

Clearly, with the explosion of new information and new technology and with the increasing demands by organizations for a skilled labor force to compete successfully in the "information age" based in a global economy, a significant challenge confronts most organizations on how to best prepare and motivate their workers. This paper focuses upon a possible solution for addressing this challenge: the use of freedom of speech as a construct for creating a culture which empowers organizational members. The analysis begins with definitions of relevant terms. It then explores principles and applications of freedom of speech as a construct. Finally, implications of freedom of speech in the workplace for the 21st century are presented.

Definitions

To help clarify key terms in this study, the following words need to be defined: empowerment, freedom of speech, and organizational culture. These terms will help to establish the boundaries of the current study, and will provide a philosophical perspective from which to consider the relationship among them for empowering workers to communicate freely and effectively.

Empowerment

Most organizations in the United States face, perhaps, one of their most significant challenges as they approach the 21st century: How much power should they allow their workers to possess in matters related to the organization? Critics argue that "corporate bosses are still locked in the militaristic command-and-control style of management" (Iwata, 1993, p. 6). Yet organizations seem to be moving in one of two distinct directions. One direction suggests that certain "progressive, high-performance companies" stress good relations between management and labor, allowing them to have an active voice in work that directly affects them; the other direction marks companies that believe a "feudal era" still exists (Iwata, 1993). Organizations in the first direction seek to achieve a "win-win" outcome for both the companies and the workers; those in the second direction often seek a "win-lose" outcome for themselves as being the winners. But, too often, these same organizations achieve only a "lose-lose" outcome due to strikes, work stoppage, slow-downs, sabotage, etc., creating a condition which inhibits all sides from winning or feeling truly empowered.

What seems to be an important ingredient for determining if organizational members perceive themselves as winners or losers in these organizations is their sense of empowerment to address and act upon matters that affect them. But what does the term empowerment mean? …

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