Employee Empowerment: The Rhetoric and the Reality

Birgit Muskat (Assistant Professor Tourism and Management Studies, Faculty of Business and Government, University of Canberra, Australia)

Managing Service Quality: An International Journal

ISSN: 0960-4529

Article publication date: 15 November 2011




Muskat, B. (2011), "Employee Empowerment: The Rhetoric and the Reality", Managing Service Quality: An International Journal, Vol. 21 No. 6, pp. 688-690. https://doi.org/10.1108/09604521111185655



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Rozana Huq's book investigates how formal and informal Employee Empowerment concepts are understood and perceived in organisational reality. Her work is structured into eight parts with additional information included in the appendix. The introduction is followed by a literature review, which introduces and reflects on the four main themes around employee empowerment: power‐sharing, participative decision‐making, devolution of responsibility and a people‐oriented leadership style. Her qualitative research comprises two case studies, in which she is seeking to examine the implementation of employee empowerment in two organisations. The book is essentially based on Huq's PhD thesis, which was conducted in the UK. Within the study she also guides the reader to additional information on her website www.rozanahuq.co.uk, which provides more of her background in human resources management and consultancy work.

The purpose of her publication Employee Empowerment: The Rhetoric and the Reality, is to examine personal experiences with employee empowerment at various organisational levels of power. For this research rationale Huq decided to select a qualitative interpretative approach, with one‐to‐one interviews and focus groups. She investigates the realisation of employee empowerment in a British publicly owned company, active in the communication sector with 2,000 staff and, in another, privately owned, small sized manufacturing business with 54 employees (p. 24). The two case study examples are carefully chosen, as they have significant potential for comparison. The organisations have different organisational features, such as their size; public vs privately owned, multinational vs locally operating; in addition both firms are operating in different industrial sectors. The larger firm has tried to implement employee empowerment formally, whereas the smaller organisation planned to implement the new concept informally. However most interestingly, both have a very important communality; both have been granted the European Foundation of Quality Management (EFQM) Award. This implies that the author intended to conduct her research within two organisational cultures that are open to change and aiming for business excellence.

Her research findings are again structured around her four leading themes in employee empowerment: power‐sharing, participative decision‐making, devolution of responsibility and a people‐oriented leadership style. An additional reflective and a conclusive section, which includes policy implications, are especially useful in providing advice for the organisational practice and is entitled as “additional notes for leaders and managers” (p. 74). Another noticeable finding reveals that many of her respondents perceived the purpose of the staff empowerment concept “as simply going out for the day, as being a social activity” (p. 50).

Although both firms have explicitly chosen to enhance employee empowerment, both are facing difficulties in applying the most important principles (p. 65). Analysing the barriers of this organisational change in the larger firm, Huq identifies and stresses an explicit gap in the perception of “shared power” between managers and their subordinates. The lack of training and communication is recognized as a barrier for the large public international organisation. This firm is challenged by having to change its organisational culture and leadership style from “command and control” towards a culture that is based on empowerment of staff (p. 52).

One of the key issues for the smaller organisation reveals that the owner‐manager does not intend to transform the organisational culture at all, as he is trying to maintain the hierarchical structure. However, a change that empowers staff will inevitably involve the reduction of hierarchical thinking in at least some decision making aspects, since this is supposed to be a prerequisite for the organisational change towards committing to employee empowerment. Her results provide evidence that the owner manager is sharing power only with the middle management, whereas the lower level employees are not included in participating in any power sharing (p. 57). In an additional reflective session after completing the empirical research with the managers, she also finds that “the lack of evaluation and monitoring in both organisations created a vacuum with regards to nurturing and supporting their employee empowerment practices” (p. 70).

Not only was the management's perspective taken into consideration, but also studying the staff perspective made some challenges obvious. Whilst evaluating the aspect “participative decision‐making” her results show that some staff perceived this responsibility rather as a burden than an empowering tool (p. 51).

Overall, this very enthusiastically written book by Rozana Huq provides an insight in the current discussion on the implementation of employee empowerment and is also useful source of references. After reading the book I would consider the author's targeted audience to be practitioners interested in learning about employee empowerment and the differences between theory and practical usage (p. 36). However, her intention was to attract researchers as well who would wish to conduct research in this area. In my opinion, she could have presented and discussed more literature and investigated a little further into some management and organisational theory literature.

Some concepts also remain unexplained; for example, when Huq introduces business process re‐engineering as being closely associated with employee empowerment: “The term employee empowerment has also been widely associated with initiatives such as (TQM) total quality management and (BPR) business process re‐engineering” (p. 2). Whereas indeed TQM is especially known for emphasizing the empowerment of the organisational social system, as opposed to the organisation's technical system, BRP would be rather related to improving customer services and reducing process costs. Moreover, it could have been beneficial if she had looked into management research around the topics change management, leadership theories and emotional intelligence, in order to frame her theoretical work in a more wide‐spread context.

In some parts I would also have wished to find a rather objective and neutral approach. For example, it was quite influential, as I was reading the introductory part of the findings, that some of the audience would be “empathetic with the findings” (p. 45). I would have aimed for a rather more objective, neutral introduction as this topic is highly influenced by emotions and subjective perceptions of managers and staff members.

Concluding this review I would like to congratulate Huq on her work, as it is very readable and interesting to study. I would recommend her book especially to practitioners in this area, as it presents and discusses the practical issues relevant for organisational change towards employee empowerment.

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