Rhetoric and the Politics of Workplace Innovation

Rhetoric and the Politics of Workplace Innovation

Struggling with Empowerment and Modernization

Martin Beirne

This book provides a critical insight into the ongoing debates and controversies that surround employee empowerment and workplace innovation. It highlights competing interests and conflicting values, and illuminates some basic tensions between confident rhetoric and everyday realities.

Chapter 1: Perspectives on empowerment and progressive change at work

Martin Beirne

Subjects: business and management, human resource management, organisational innovation, organisational behaviour, innovation and technology, organisational innovation


Employee empowerment is one of the most widely touted and potentially potent concepts in modern management. Some writers have suggested that the 1990s marked the beginning of an empowerment era (Gandz, 1990; Hardy and Leiba-O’Sullivan, 1998; Appelbaum et al., 1999). The inference here is that a substantial proportion of management practitioners, as well as consultants and prescriptive ‘how-to-do-management’ commentators, now appreciate the value of ‘humanizing organizations’ (Notter and Grant, 2011) so that employees have more of an independent influence on job-related activities and a greater say in decision-making processes that affect the nature and impact of their employment (Littrell, 2007; Wooddell, 2009; Fernandez and Moldogaziev, 2011). The achievements of empowering managers and liberated employees have certainly been much-discussed over the past two decades, occupying a large promotional literature (Tracy, 1990; Foy, 1994; Caudron, 1995; Ward, 1996; Blanchard et al., 1999; Fracaro, 2006) and becoming part of the staple diet of management development courses and business school leadership programmes. Empowering staff is often presented as a ‘key management competence’, and a reliable means of achieving commercial success in the turbulent global markets that characterize the early twenty-first century (Carter, 2009; Men, 2011). The business case for empowerment relies upon the actual or potential responsiveness and innovativeness of front-line employees, who are ostensibly capable of far greater and more lucrative contributions to organizational performance than established ‘command and control’ styles of management are able to release (Fracaro, 2006).

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