28 July 2009

EMD XI: Enabling Environments of Empowerment

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

Let me state right off the top that I hate the word empowerment. It is one of those words that brings along as much baggage and false expectations as meeting up again with your freshman boy/girlfriend years after you’ve graduated. (Don’t like that metaphor? I’ve got others!) On one hand, empowerment may indeed convey the notion of individual autonomy and agency that is a hallmark of the UCaPP organization. On the other, the notion of empowerment – that often accompanies its sister ideas of participatory or democratic management – may often prove to be an exercise in behaviour modification that increases one’s sense of responsibility and accountability without the concomitant conveyance of authority to act without having to first check with either a superior, policy, or procedure. This post and the next reflects on issues surrounding empowerment in both BAH and UCaPP contexts.

One of my participant organizations provides a great case study as it began as an entrepreneurship – a start-up, technology service organization – and doubled in size from about a dozen to two dozen people through the course of my study. It also, in my estimation, transitioned from being a more-UCaPP to becoming quite a bit more-BAH during the nine month period between the first and last conversations there. During the first round of conversations, there is specific mention of those who take support calls being able to effect remedial application changes very quickly, and that everyone is empowered to help customers. These dynamics are consistent with UCaPP behaviours in an environment with strong organization-ba, that is, everyone knowing what to do so that organizational impetus is emergent, yet consistent towards common effect. In contrast, by the time of the second conversation nine months later, customer support has evolved to become more BAH in its realization, with a relatively lower status, dedicated support group, and far less direct empowerment of individuals to fix problems in favour of a mediating administrative system. As well, there seems to be less direct involvement of more senior organization members in the overall support and satisfaction processes, resulting in less successful direct connections with customers.

One of the explanations for the changes that were related by this organization’s participants is that as the organization grew, it became important for role definition to solidify. A rapidly scaling organization cannot manage itself without devolving into confusion and chaos if everyone does everything: clear roles and responsibilities are imperative to maintain stability and to grow the organization and its service offerings. However, we must be careful not to conflate defined roles and functional areas of content expertise, with hierarchy and privilege if the organization truly wants to maintain a UCaPP context, as this organization nominally espouses. Unlike a BAH environment in which certain roles and certain subject matter expertise carry with them the connotations of power, class, and privilege, a UCaPP environment does not automatically assume, for instance, that organizational infrastructure roles (i.e., management functions) are mutually exclusive from functional content roles and are, by definition, worthy of a higher status and class privilege.

Start-up organizations often operate with more UCaPP-like characteristics, often by default, having limited numbers of participants who assume equal, “early joiner” status among themselves. The UCaPP-enabling environment often emerges from a phenomenon that I call founders-ba or entrepreneurial-ba that can be linked to charisma, an inspirational vision, referent leadership, and a powerful competitive zeal and energy. These factors create the common sense of purpose and volition to action that characterizes basho in an organization. As this nascent organization grows into a small company over its initial few years, the organization can either develop a more sustainable culture of organization-ba, enabling it to become a true UCaPP organization, or – as is far more often the case – it can evolve into a traditional BAH organization, the form to which most people have been socialized. What I observed in this organization as it transformed from start-up to small company is that individual autonomy and agency, and collaborative, highly participatory decision-making, gave way first to an informal status hierarchy (primarily based on accredited knowledge and experience), leading to a formal hierarchy and minimal bureaucracy, ending up well on the way to becoming a full-fledged BAH organization of about two-dozen people in which fully one-third of the entire staff complement has management titles, and decisions are made within an exclusive steering committee.

There is a key lesson illustrated here in how to grow the less formalized aspects of organizational roles and structures that characterize an entrepreneurship, while not digressing into anarchy: true empowerment in a UCaPP context means those who would otherwise end up on top in a traditional hierarchy must give up the privilege that accompanies legitimated power, and that runs contrary to the entrepreneur’s mindset of ownership and retaining absolute power and control. In a more-UCaPP organization, legitimated power changes to become predominantly nominal power, with power-connoting roles and titles primarily used for external consumption as in the case of two participant UCaPP organizations, one of which use the titles Director for everyone in their newest division, the other, Co-Manager for everyone in their organization.

As one might expect, referent power, rather than legitimate or coercive power, is more important and most potent in these environments, especially when considered in terms of valence contexts (i.e., the ba-aspect of each valence, depending on the situation, and which valence(s) become more relevant to the situation). However, problems develop when the founder/leader is either unwilling, unable, or both to relinquish legitimate and coercive power. I read this as an issue directly related to the Identity-valence relationship: does the founder/leader consider her/his role as truly enabling an environment of full participation, information sharing, and ceding of control in favour of inviting heterogeneous voices and dissenting opinions to the table? Or, does the founder/leader create a palliative construct that maintains elite control of the organization while nominally enabling dissenting voices to come forward for the purpose of being identified and “convinced” of the correctness of the leaders’ vision?

I cannot help but compare the CEOs of two of my participant organizations, one transforming from the more-UCaPP start-up to a more-BAH small company, and the other several years into a BAH to UCaPP transformation. Both of these leaders have, and can exercise an absolute veto and unilateral decision power with respect to members of their organizations and organizational direction. The key differences lie the intent and actions of each leader relative to creating systems of authentic collaboration (or not), enabling mechanisms that tend to divest absolute power rather than concentrating it in a privileged group, and encouraging a culture of inquiry rather than a culture of advocacy for the leader’s point of view. The latter CEO (of the UCaPP organization) reserves her veto and laments having to use it. She operates in a context of checking-in, continually seeking “for the sake of why” something is being done. The CEO of the former organization sees the veto as his legitimate right as the founder of the organization. He checks-up, using enquiry to identify dissenters – those who would question his direction and decisions – in order to convince them of the correctness of his vision. As one participant from that organization observes: “The organization has not been set up as a living, breathing organism. It has been set up as an extension of one living, breathing organism. If nobody’s asking questions … nobody’s thinking about the reasons behind what we’re doing [and] that implies to me that there’s not enough thinking being done.”

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