The Meaning of Empowerment: the interdisciplinary etymology of a new management concept
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Empowerment has become a widely used management term in the last decade or so, though, in practical terms, it shares the ambiguity of its predecessors in the HRM tradition. This paper sets out to unravel the web of meaning surrounding empowerment to show what a contested concept it is, and hence why its application in organizational settings is fraught with misunderstanding and tension. It does so by taking an approach that contributes to the examination of HRM discourse and management rhetoric. To demonstrate the ambiguity of empowerment as a concept, the paper reviews the various ways in which the term has been used across non-management disciplines (women, minority groups, education, community care, politics), culminating with a review of the use of empowerment in contemporary management theory. The paper concludes that organizations and managers have chosen to coin a phrase which is open to different, sometimes contradictory, meanings and which, when applied, evokes both subjective attitudes and objective behaviour, means different things in varying contexts, and is affected fundamentally by individual differences in perception and experience. Unless organizations offer clear operational definitions when using empowerment, instead of purely acquiescing to a vague and seductive version of the concept, they are abdicating responsibility for the unpredictable consequences that result.
International Journal of Management Reviews
Copyright2002 Blackwell Publishing Ltd and the British Academy of Management. This is the author-manuscript version of the paper. Reproduced in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher. The definitive version is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/