28 July 2009

EMD XIII: So What’s This Empowerment All About, Anyway?

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.

Being empowered rests on the individual ability to take autonomous action based on independent, sometimes disagreeing, but aligned thought, among a group of autonomous actors. As one participant from a UCaPP organization puts it, “having a lot of people working on the same thing at the same time. Going in approximately in the same direction, but also, bringing many, many different perspectives. Many heads are better than one when you’re looking at this sort of thing. And actually, many kinds of voices, many ways of expressing things. Divergent views at times are all things that are important to have when you’re trying to achieve objectives around many of the things we work on.

Part of empowerment – the major part of enabling true empowerment in an organization – is the acceptance that people can sometimes make a bad decision, and that the organization will support them, even if it means the decision must be retracted in a public forum. “While I know that I have the right and responsibility to do these things while I’m out, I also have the responsibility to ensure that I’m right. That I get is as right as I can. And understand my organization as well as I can, so that I can think about what the fallout might be. Whether it’s fallout in terms of, was that a very effective thing to do, to, did it undermine something else that we’re trying to do? Then, when I come back to the institution, it’s the institution’s obligation to support me. And, if there is fallout, if there’s a problem, even if they think I was wrong, but support me, and be able to figure out, okay, now what do we do? How do we manage this?

Enabling this sort of autonomy and agency requires collaborative engagement in the analysis of issues, but not merely to make individual decisions. Rather, the collaborative process allows individual members to understand the collective mind of the organization itself, to be able to anticipate, for the most part, how any particular decision would be made. “When we’re here around the table, we do our analysis together. We understand our institution, we understand where we’re coming from. When we engage in the conversations, we understand it better and better. That allows us to go out and be the executive director, each and every one of us. We can make decisions for our organization.” This essentially means that no one individual or small sub-group of individuals has control; control is divested to the organization as a whole. The processes of developing the common understanding and sense-making that enable this divestiture create organization-ba and in doing so, enable individual autonomy and agency in the context of collective responsibility and mutual accountability; in other words, the elusive state of empowerment.

Characteristic of UCaPP organizations, collaborative leadership and individual empowerment in this sense does not suggest the absence of responsibility or accountability. It is quite the opposite, in fact. “We are responsible for the organization, and we’re all accountable to the organization. And, we all get benefit from the organization. So we work on the principle of parity. Parity of responsibility, accountability, obligation, as well as parity of what we get out of the organization. … Because it’s a matter of judgement, you just have to develop your judgement. And, it’s also a matter of trusting the [other] person’s judgement. There’s no procedure manual sort of thing that you can say, okay, your judgement goes 75% of the time and then you have to bring it. There’s no quantitative way to do that.

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