28 July 2009

EMD XII: More on the Environment 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.

Empowerment cannot exist in an environment where there is not a conscious and explicit reflection on power relations. It cannot exist in an environment in which the natural power dynamics of knowledge-based authority, or particular subject-matter expertise becomes entrenched in an arbitrarily constructed, normatively imposed, hierarchical internal structure. In other words, the members of a BAH organization cannot enjoy individual empowerment, irrespective of the rhetoric or euphemisms.

In traditional, more-BAH organizations, people often claim empowerment when they can speak their minds and feel they have been heard, and when they can act without feeling they need to seek prior permission. But when one looks behind the curtain, as it were, there remains the question of how that consultation is actually considered, and whether the apparently autonomous action was taken within previously delineated-by-policy “guidelines.” Are people being authentically consulted in an attempt to make sense of a complex situation through inviting diverse voices? Or, is the consultation really an exercise in making those whose opinions are consistent with that of legitimated leaders feel included while simultaneously ferreting out dissenters for more focused attention?

In a BAH organization, decisions made by those with legitimate power, relatively higher in the hierarchy, can be disseminated throughout the organization with little need to convince the other members of the organization. Coercive influences is sufficient to ensure compliance. In a relatively more contemporary organization that seems to espouse UCaPP principles but is struggling with BAH isomorphism as it grows, the act of “convincing someone” of the leader’s vision being the correct one might be a sign of in-use theory separating from espoused theory in what is nominally collaborative decision making, but in fact is the legitimate leader increasingly exerting his will. As one individual puts it, “I spend time with our CEO and he’ll tell me how he wants it, and I’ll pretty much write down what he wants and I will work with that.” Espoused “democracy” in decision-making is considered great, so long as everyone is in agreement. Any differing opinions signal involvement by the CEO to either bring dissenters in line. He describes it like this: “There will be disagreement, and I will invest time in that individual to help describe to them where I’m coming from, and usually once they get themselves into the set of shoes I need them to be in, it’s usually a lot easier to convince them that, in fact, this is what we need to do.

On the other hand, in a UCaPP organization, decisions that are not unanimous will cycle back through the collaborative decision-making process for maintains a legitimated power structure via a nominal hierarchy, those higher up must make a specific and deliberate effort to ensure that they are honestly listening to, and truly considering, opinions and situation analyses that differ from their own. Polarity management, dialogue and other similar mechanisms are very important to ensure that the legitimate leader is consulting, not convincing.

The key element here in dealing with dissenting opinion is that power and control to impose one’s view does not occur in a UCaPP organization. The most that an individual can accomplish is to reopen an issue for further consideration and reflection. However, there is the implicit trust in the fact that for controversial topics, there is “the opportunity to talk about things more than once naturally on their own.” This illustrates another contrast with a more-BAH organization: the leader's power is exercised to prevent controversial issues from being raised again (effectively precluding questioning of the power that pushed it through in the first place). The CEO to whom I referred earlier frames it this way: “you can disagree about stuff, but then once you decide to commit to it, you commit to it and you don’t look back.

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