There are many examples of organisational performance transformed by empowered workforces. Toyota, for instance, talks about the myriad quality improvements it achieves each year through quality circles that enable the workforce to make changes. This is probably the chief reason for its rise in three decades from near obliteration to the world's number two car company.
But the real pressure for empowerment comes from the business environment. Everyone expects continued significant and unpredictable change, more complexity, paradox and ambiguity, and the demand for more involvement from employees.
As a result, senior managers must continue to set corporate direction and key strategic priorities. But they increasingly conclude that they also have to decentralise, delegate and remove layers in order to encourage decision-making and initiatives close to the sharp end of the business.
However, if the empowerment movement is not to become the great failed management panacea of the 1990s we need to come to terms with its difficulties as well as its eloquence and energy.
Even in companies trying to pursue empowerment strategies, research shows that most employees experience alienation, poor communication, lack of positive feedback and unclear goals and priorities.
This is partly because empowerment tends not to be placed in context. Unrealistic expectations can be raised through training programmes that are unclear about what managers and staff can take control of. These hopes will then be dashed, and cynicism will inevitably follow.
Japanese organisational culture recognises this. Employees may feel empowered continuously to improve quality, for example, by temporarily stopping the production process if a defect is identified, but they clearly do not feel empowered to question the style of management, long-term strategy or fundamental management values.
The second problem comes from human nature itself. An apparent sense of empowerment is relatively easy to achieve in times of plenty, growth and optimism. Unfortunately, when times get tough most people tend to revert to instinctive and sometimes more divisive behaviour patterns.
In particular, growing numbers of talented and younger staff members are becoming disillusioned by the 'values gap' between what is espoused in glossy company reports, and at senior management conferences, and the reality of these senior managers' behaviour when operating under pressure.
It reminds me of the beverage company that empowered staff to take whatever time was necessary to satisfy customer complaints except when there was a heat wave and demand for thirst-quenching drinks rose rapidly - then suddenly a strong controlling culture emerged.
So empowerment is only likely to deliver significant benefits if the overall organisational context supports it consistently and if people are capable, confident and mature enough to handle it.
Finally, not only do British workers generally have fewer skills than our chief competitors, we are also much less inclined to use coaching and mentoring to build confidence, mutual trust and an ability to learn from each other.
Only now in a small but growing number of European and UK companies are these developmental methods - common in Japan - being incorporated.
The practice is well-developed in the Swedish-based conglomerate Asea Brown Boveri. But at Rhone- Poulenc, the French chemicals company, managers approaching retirement known as 'godfathers' are starting to be used in the training of younger executives, while Britain's National Health Service is encouraging more women into senior positions by putting them under the wing of the few who have already made it.
At the same time, there is recognition that the overriding role of the manager is to coach and to develop others. These are skills that are not easily and quickly acquired and managers require help and need to be committed.
As we continue to reduce head- counts, move to fluid team-working and project management methods and employ fewer but more talented people, so empowerment will naturally increase in its significance.
If performance is to be improved, the development of empowerment, paradoxically, must be accompanied by more effective forms of control.
To do this - and so succeed - organisations need to integrate the concept of empowerment into their systems and culture, and actively manage its contribution.
Empowerment and control are not - as often suggested - opposites. They need to exist together in harmony.
The author is dean of Ashridge Management College.Reuse content