Understanding and Using Empowerment to Change Organizational Culture

By Mallak, Larry A.; Kurstedt, Harold A., Jr. | Industrial Management, November/December 1996 | Go to article overview

Understanding and Using Empowerment to Change Organizational Culture


Mallak, Larry A., Kurstedt, Harold A., Jr., Industrial Management


In the 1980s, many organizations sought to implement participative management. More recently, the concept of empowerment has added to participative management by encouraging employees to internalize their organization's culture and make independent decisions. Empowerment can be an integral element of organizational culture change. This article focuses on defining empowerment and differentiating it from participative management.

The level of empowerment is related to the strength of an organization's culture. Schein defines strong culture as a culture based on the homogeneity and stability of group membership, and the length and intensity of the group's shared experiences. Good leaders and good followers are necessary for empowerment to be influential in developing an organization with a strong culture.

Conventional wisdom suggests managers with empowered people on their staff are more effective-they achieve more of their objectives and they achieve them more easily. Empowerment embodies the concepts of intrinsic motivation, internal justification for decision making, shared responsibilities, and integration for problem solving. These concepts are related in a four-stage model for culture change and socialization presented later in this article. As employees mature in an organization, they gain more knowledge, internalize justification for the actions they take, and become more intrinsically motivated. Alongside this internalization process, employees tend to take a more active role in intervening in the actions of newer employees and offering feedback regarding culture-consistent behaviors. Managers should recognize this model in their organizations and manage their employees through the four stages.

More than participative management

Some of the more restrictive forms of participative management involve workers on the shop floor discussing operational issues and producing recommendations for management. More open forms of participative management give workers decision-making authority regarding their domains of responsibility. When companies shift to the more open forms of participative management, they begin the process of empowering their employees.

Our model of empowerment embodies four concepts:

1) Intrinsically motivated behavior refers to people behaving consistently with an organization's culture because they have internalized the culture's values and traditions.

2) An intrinsically motivated employee is more likely to have internal justification for actions taken. Senior workers who have assimilated into the culture's value system know what to do and help others learn the culture by intervening where they see behavior that is inconsistent with their company's culture.

3) When sharing responsibilities, management releases some of its responsibility and authority to the levels or units in the organization that deal directly with the product or service. Day-to-day decisionmaking responsibility is left in the hands of the workers who have learned the culture and have been empowered.

4) Integrating with coworkers for problem solving is often a key component of a participative management process, yet small, local-group, problem-solving efforts take on greater significance in an empowered work unit. These problemsolving groups are often spontaneous, arising out of the need for the work unit to solve a problem that has arisen from its being empowered.

Strong cultures and empowerment

An organization's level of empowerment is related to its culture. A strong culture supports the empowerment process in many ways. First, companies with strong cultures provide continuity and clarity with respect to their missions. Second, companies with strong cultures minimize mixed signals because they have reduced the equivocality of their communications, and management tends to speak with one voice. Third, companies with strong cultures have a central core of consistency that drives the basic decision-making processes throughout the organization. …

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