Empowerment, trust and control: a management paradox.

Bhupla, S.K., 2022. Empowerment, trust and control: a management paradox. DSocPrac, Nottingham Trent University.

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Employee empowerment is espoused as an important method in achieving a lean, flexible and responsive organisation, where the two main tenets of empowerment, structural and psychological, act to bring benefits to organisations and their employees, including increased innovation, efficiency, performance, job satisfaction, and commitment, whilst also reducing turnover. Further justification has been the rejection of traditional command and control by the modern highly educated workforce in favour of greater autonomy (Potterfield 1999; Nykodym et al. 1994; Dew 1997). Empowerment research however has often been undertaken in hierarchical organisations (see Hanaysha 2016, 2016a; Spreitzer 1995, 1996; Sigler and Pearson 2000; Sparrowe 1994) neglecting the increasingly-common matrix structure (Shirreff 2011; Burns and Wholey 1993; Kolb and Putnam 1992; Laslo and Goldberg, 2008; Galbraith 2009) and the potential effect that this has on perceptions of empowerment.

This investigation employed a phenomenological basis for a Participatory Action Research (PAR) framework. An insider researcher perspective was adopted to utilise the researcher’s existing professional position within an aerospace-oriented subject organisation engaged in a transformation programme. Focus groups and individual interviews with employees and senior managers were used to elicit rich lived experiences of empowerment in that organisation, building on foundational knowledge gathered through pilot surveys.

Data was gathered from five focus groups and six individual interviews of, in total, twenty-seven participants of high experience within the organisation. Due to the researcher’s insider position, there was a natural immersion within the subject organisation (Coghlan 2003; Taylor 2011) which allowed for participants to share perspectives and experiences candidly (Unluer 2012; Bonner and Tolhurst 2002).

The fieldwork yielded rich experiential data from which several themes were derived. Positives reported by participants included, contrary to the researcher’s preconceptions, that the matrix structure of the organisation rarely had an effect on participants’ ability to fulfil their role. An emergent but significant theme was that of trust, specifically a lack of such between managers and employees manifesting through restrictions on the capacity of the latter to make and execute decisions. This issue influenced many subsequent sub-themes, such as a perceived lack of managerial support, a culture of a fear of wrong decisions, prescriptive organisational processes, and the effects of a severe downsizing programme. These contributed to perceived employee frustration and disenfranchisement through not feeling empowered and being unable to fulfil their roles with pace and efficiency.

These findings make contributions to both practice and theory. In respect of practice, a summary of workplace obstacles to trust provides a sobering, and transferable, view of how empowerment, and thus the espoused benefit it brings, is inhibited by a lack of trust. With respect to theory, the investigation offers an alternative to the notable trend in the literature of employing solely quantitative methods in empowerment research by adopting a phenomenological, qualitative approach to highlight lived experiences. A second contribution is the rare exploration of the perception of trust from manager to employee, as opposed to the employee-manager flow documented by much of the trust literature, offering new insight into the way that managerial trust enhances, or indeed impedes, employees’ ability to fulfil their roles. This inquiry brings to the fore the critical importance of trust in the perceptions of empowerment; it is an indispensable foundation upon which any programme of empowerment must build.

There are limitations of this investigation and the most notable of these are primarily temporal and contextual. Specifically, the ongoing downsizing programme in the subject organisation could have serious impacts on participants, where perceptions of job security, time pressures of working with fewer resources, and increased task load may contribute to more negativity than in usual business conditions.

Recommendations for further research are varied. As the research has adopted a PAR framework, it is strongly recommended that interventions are determined with full involvement of participants. There is also a call for further exploration of the application to the findings of this work of both existing theory and philosophy: Argyris’ (1976) theories-in-action held value in helping to explain managerial perspectives and this research would benefit from greater investigation of such, specifically in relation to how and why the espoused approaches to empowerment often differ to those in actuality. The basis of this work was considered using a Foucauldian lens to provide philosophical insight of power relations. A recommendation then is for the use of a different philosophical viewpoint, specifically Bourdieu’s theory of Habitus and related cultural capital. It is hoped that this lens will enable a greater understanding of the intricacies of the perceptions of professionalism, motivation, and control that may add a nuanced thickness to this work. Finally, it is requested that further work is undertaken to extend this research beyond the study of self-determination and formal power to the remaining recognised tenets of psychological empowerment (meaning, competence, and impact) in order to ascertain the effect of the constructs together.

Item Type: Thesis
Creators: Bhupla, S.K.
Date: January 2022
Rights: This work is the intellectual property of the author. You may copy up to 5% of this work for private study, or personal, non-commercial research. Any re-use of the information contained within this document should be fully referenced, quoting the author, title, university, degree level and pagination. Queries or request for any other use, or if a more substantial copy is required, should be directed to the owner of the Intellectual Property Rights.
Divisions: Schools > School of Social Sciences
Record created by: Jeremy Silvester
Date Added: 28 Jan 2022 17:26
Last Modified: 28 Jan 2022 17:26
URI: https://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/45445

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