Delegation and Empowerment are related but separate constructs. Delegation is a structural arrangement whereby certain tasks and requisite authority to accomplish them is entrusted to somebody. It generally pertains to a position/role and is not person specific. The terms of delegation are usually spelt out in specific tangible details e.g. the financial limits of expenditure etc.On the other hand, Empowerment is fuzzy and intangible. It is more a state of being, wherein the individual feels that he/she can chose/act in a way that he/she deems fit, that his/her feelings/thoughts/views etc. matter, that he/she is an important part of the system and can therefore exercise some influence over it.
It seems reasonable to assume that Delegation should lead to Empowerment, but it is not always so. Often individuals/groups may have the structural authority to make choices, but do not feel empowered to do so. Thus a group of elected MLA’s may have the authority to elect their leader but de-facto their choice is dictated by the “high command”. Similarly, representation of women in elected bodies like Gram Panchayat, is supposed to empower them but in practice they may act as proxies on behalf of their male relatives. Such gaps between Structural authority and experience of empowerment is a fairly common phenomenon in virtually all spheres of life.
The corporate world is no exception. Here also it is not unusual to find people who do not feel empowered in spite of having the requisite delegation of authority for their role. A selection committee may be delegated the authority to chose the right person, but its actual decision making may be based on factors other than its own judgement. Similarly, many managers may feel it “safe” to sound their superior(s) before exercising their own delegated authority. Such phenomenon are not restricted to lower/middle levels but are all pervasive and can be witnessed at the very top also. A colleague once narrated an experience about how a certain note on a fairly routine matter sent by him to the president of a large company came back with a comment “let us take management approval”.
Our research covering more than 3000 Indian managers indicates that there is a strong feeling among them of their organisations not being sufficiently empowering. To look at this through the lens of structural delegation may not be very meaningful and in fact may be counter productive. Delegation without empowerment diffuses accountability. While theoretically, the person who has been delegated can be held accountable, the concerned person rarely has the complete psychological ownership of the decision. From the person’s point of view the decision is not really his/her though he/she may have signed on the dotted line.On the other hand, the person(s) who may actually be responsible, have no formal role in the decision making process and hence can not be held accountable.
Thus engagement with issues of Empowerment necessarily entails going beyond issues of structure and looking at the emotive dimension. The emotive dimension is closely linked to the prevalent culture and its salience. In the Indian context, issues of Empowerment are strongly impacted by two inter-related themes
- The relationship matrix and its ambience, and
- Quality of ownership of the System
For most Indian managers the feeling of empowerment is intimately linked to the quality of their relationship with significant others particularly their boss. If they believe that they enjoy the support and good will of their boss and other significant people, they feel empowered. On the other hand, if they do not enjoy such support, they do not feel empowered irrespective of the structural authority delegated to them.In fact, in such situations, often their exercise of delegated authority becomes tentative and hence more of a curse than a boon. Needless to say, there are people who can feel empowered in a non-supportive setting, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. While relationship with the boss is the most significant element, it is by no means the only one. In fact excessive closeness with the boss can alienate the individual from his/her peer group causing a need to perpetually look behind one’s back. Simply put, it is not just one relationship but an entire matrix in which the individual places himself/herself. It is the ambience of this container which determines the nature of empowerment that can flourish.
Exercise of power inevitably carries the risk of transgressing boundaries. Consequently, a sense of legitimacy is integral to feeling empowered. In the Indian context, this legitimacy is largely derived from “ownership of the system”. There are two aspects of ownership-
- Sense of belonging and commitment to the System (I belong to the System) and
- Claim over the System and consequent presumption of right to act on its behalf (System belongs to me).
Traditionally, the former has come quite naturally to Indians because a significant part of our identity stems from our belonging system. Thus “I belong to the System” is a statement which many Indians can make with relative ease. However, the situation in respect of the second aspect is quite complex. The claim/right over the System tends to be defined in absolute terms of “all or none”.Consequently, either the person says that the System does not belong to me and I am a mere “servant” OR that I am the “master” and hence have complete power over the System. Thus it is not surprising that irrespective of their formal structure, many Indian organisations operate essentially as a “collation of fiefdoms”. In this scenario the only person who can feel empowered is the “Chief”. However, the empowerment of the Chief is also restricted to his/her own fiefdom, beyond which he/she feels as disempowered as anyone else.
The complexity of present day organisations requires considerable co-holding (both of tasks and responsibilities as well as power and authority), hence ability to co-hold becomes a prerequisite for empowerment. In my experience of working with individuals and organisations, I find a strong co-relation between the individual’s ability to co-hold with the extent of empowerment which he/she experiences. I am using the term co-holding not just in the sense of collaboration, but also as an emotive link where there is a feeling of being together in something.
To sum up, meaningful engagement with issues of Empowerment requires going beyond structural arrangements like delegation of authorities, appointment of committees etc. They have to address the emotive dimension as well. In the Indian context, it would mean-
- Building a container of emotional infrastructure in which empowerment can flourish, and
- Creating a strong sense of collective ownership which would give legitimacy to the individual to act on behalf of the System.