by: Ashit K. Sarkar, 3E Palmtree Place, 23 Palmgrove Road,

Bangalore –560 047 (Ph: 080-4112-8153)

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An interesting recent book "Hidden Value" by Charles O'Reilly III & Jeffrey Pfeffer has a subtitle: "How great companies achieve extraordinary results with ordinary people." This is amplified with: "Every rational company in the world is trying to hire the best people in the world. There can only be one company with the best people. Hiring the best is a failing strategy. Organizations must be designed to thrive with ordinary people."

HR strategy focuses on achievement of the organizational goals as best as possible through its people – with ordinary ones performing at their best.  The management style, methodology or philosophy may be different, but we have learned over the years that it is finally the people in the organization who have to be not only competent, but also motivated to create this difference.


Maslow’s five-stage ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ pyramid model developed in 1940-50’s for human needs starting from the basic (1) Biological & Physiological,  (2) Safety, (3) Belonging & Love, (4) Esteem, to finally (5) Self-actualization needs of people, highlighted what played a vital part in understanding human motivation – as the foundation of modern motivation management.   Earlier, Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management theory during early 1900, and Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne experiments in 1920’s were the forerunners to improve the methods or practices in industry, whilst Max Weber and Henri Fayol made significant contributions to Bureaucracy and Administration management concepts.


Maslow’s model was followed with Fredrick Herzberg’s motivational theory in the sixties that summarized by stating “the job satisfiers deal with factors involved in doing the job, whereas the job dissatisfiers deal with the factors which define the job context."  His analysis of the ‘motivators’ and ‘hygiene factors’ differentiated the outcomes of such factors through measuring  ‘satisfaction’ and ‘dissatisfaction’.  The identification of medium to high motivator factors (personal growth, advancement, responsibility, work itself, recognition and achievement), as against the hygiene factors (supervision, Company policy, relationships with supervisors/peers/subordinates, salary, security, personal life, work conditions and status) were deemed merely as launch pads, but by themselves they do little to motivate. Herzberg's remarkable ideas related strongly to the modern ethical and social responsibility of management. Herzberg's ideas were developed several decades before these more recent and important organizational perspectives.  On a very similar vein, Harvard psychologist David McClelland summarized in his book ‘The Achieving Society’ (1961) the “needs-based motivational model” identifying the (1) ‘achievement motivated’, (2) ‘authority motivated’ and (3) ‘affiliation motivated’ persons, and stating that most people possess and exhibit a combination of these three characteristics.


While the above motivational theories were being developed, Douglas McGregor proposed the famous Theory X and Y in 1960 in his well-known book ‘The Human Side of Enterprise’. They describe two very different attitudes toward workforce motivation.  McGregor found that most companies followed either one or the other approach. He felt that the key to connecting self-actualization with work is determined by the managerial trust of subordinates.  He identified the authoritarian style of management as ‘X’, having the belief that average persons avoids responsibility and needs to be directed and controlled, and ‘Y’ as the participative style where people usually accept and often seek responsibility; they apply self-control and self-direction; and that the intellectual potential of the average person is only partly used.  In 1981, William Ouchi developed Theory ‘Z’ – that advocated a combination of all that is best about Theory ‘Y’ and the modern Japanese management, that places a large amount of freedom and trust with workers, and relies on attitude and responsibilities with commitment and strong loyalty and interest in team working by the employee.


Following the above history of motivation theories and management styles, in this article one important aspect of the HR strategy is being discussed. One has to carefully decide today about how to get the best from the people for the achievement of the vision and mission of their own enterprise.  Employee competency and motivation are rightly stressed as an important factor, and skill training and development plans are emphasized for identified shortcomings, or for growth.  While ‘Employee Development’ is important and essential, lot more is necessary for excellence.  It goes without saying that employee motivation; teamwork and supportive colleagues and peers play an important role, as do work-culture and management style of the organization.  These are complex issues and require long term nurturing to be effective, and there is no unique or uniform success formula that is applicable to all.

Traditional HR processes and systems focused on talent management, which integrated capabilities, leadership gaps, succession pools and future needs starting with the business strategy for the earlier "pre-hire to retire" concept. Many are moving now toward building more integrated HR strategies, as they face new challenges: employee engagement is at an all-time low, retention scares everyone, since how to make work "easy" and "humane" has become important now that the barriers between work and life are all but gone, with a focus on much more simplicity, coaching, agile goal management, and developmental feedback. Businesses require HR systems that drive employee engagement which helps improve employment brand, and platforms that harness and reach out to find, source, and attract candidates, even for the limited work-life of employees today. Diversity & Inclusion and Work Environment has to match with the Purpose, Values and Mission of the organization in an integrated manner in order for higher Employee Engagement. The following five elements (as per Josh Bersin, Founder & Principal at Bersin by Deloitte) are: Meaningful Work, Hands-on Management, Positive Work Environment, Growth Opportunity and Trust in Leadership. These will lead to Engagement and Empowerment from earlier "Practice-driven" to "Data-driven" solutions - from Talent to People Management Processes required today.

Employee empowerment is recognized to be an important value adder in performance management, as it utilizes the unused potentials of the human resource that brings out the best of ordinary people. It is one of the critical issues confronting the managers in the process of transforming organizations. It is a democratizing function with greater employee involvement and commitment as key factors.  Richard Crawford in his 1991 book “In the Era of Human Capital…” stated: “Those who focus on an empowered workforce will continue to gain the competitive edge over those who ignore it as a powerful economic factor”.  Stephen Covey stated: "An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success."   It may be noted that employee empowerment is an extensions and further development of Theory Y, and also Theory Z.

However, empowerment is not an easy concept, and is often unclear to the people themselves, whose perception and understanding vary considerably.  Many organizations or senior management just pay lip service to this term, and in reality it remains only in paper for some.  For effective empowerment the "secret" to success is that employees have been provided the goals, the training, and the "freedom" needed to "own" their new demands and become fully accountable. The two-way "contract" demands from employees and their work teams a direct contribution to the corporate profitability, and from the employer the trust, delegated authority, and resources needed.

Dr. Stephen R Covey has explained this very lucidly:  Perhaps the first step in creating an empowered work force is having everyone gain a shared understanding of what empowerment is - and what it is not. It is the powerful governing principle at the managerial level of any organization.

Many managers think of empowerment as delegating decision making to the lowest level possible. In practice, we too often find "empowering" bosses delegating responsibility to subordinates without sufficient authority, understanding, resources or supportive guidance to be effective. People who think they are "empowered" too often resist the limitations and guidance that must accompany any responsibility. True empowerment is not: responsibility without authority or resources, authority to "do your own thing" without limits or accountability, power without focus or consequences, or abandonment by the boss or supervisor.” 

He further states that: “In a deeper and more significant sense, employees will become empowered as they are able to apply principles by using core processes. Empowerment comes as people contribute their full potential in attaining both personal and organizational objectives. Your role as an empowering leader might be considered this: To create conditions in which all employees can contribute their maximum potential capacity to achieve the strategic goals and desired results of the organization in meeting stakeholder needs. Empowerment is not a program; it is a core condition for quality.”

Empowerment is ensuring employees closest to a problem or need, have the authority to make judgments on how the problem is to be solved, or the need to be met.  Empowerment does not mean unlimited license.  It implies responsible freedom in a trusting environment. Empowerment is not a gift bestowed by a benevolent leader. The job of the leader is to release power by removing barriers that keep employees from acting with power in a responsible manner.   Empowerment becomes a partnership in focused energy for creating the ‘go the extra mile’ enthusiasm. The wise leader recognizes the enormous power that can be harnessed when barriers to responsible freedom are eliminated and employees are encouraged to think like owners. Empowerment is a never-ending journey.   Simplistically expressed: “Employee empowerment is a term used to express the ways in which junior staff can make autonomous decisions without consulting a boss. These self-willed decisions can be small or large depending upon the degree of power with which the company wishes to invest to the employees”.


Empowerment culture in an enterprise demands:


Empowered organizations are made of empowered persons; it's not necessarily true that a group of empowered persons automatically create an empowered organization.  It has to be understood that Empowerment is not about "letting go, it's about sharing your power with the ones below you. Employee empowerment is often viewed as an inverted triangle of organizational power.  In the traditional view, management is at the top while customers are on the bottom; in an empowered environment, customers are at the top while management is in a support role at the bottom.


It is important to safeguard against many pit-falls that results in the failure of Empowerment process.  Ten reasons suggested by HR Consultant Susan M Heathfield are:




1.     Abraham H. Maslow: Hierarchy of Needs: A Theory of Human Motivation 

2.     Frederick Herzberg: The Motivation to Work 

3.     Douglas McGregor: The Human Side of the Enterprise

4.     Richard D Crawford:  In the Era of Human Capital:  The Emergence of Talent, Intelligence, and Knowledge as the Worldwide Economic Force and What it Means to Managers and Investors.

5.     Stephen R Covey: Article on Principle Centered Leadership – What Is Empowerment?

6.     Peter Block:  The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work.