Rhetoric and the Politics of Workplace Innovation
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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.
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Chapter 7: Sustaining a voluntary commitment

Struggling with Empowerment and Modernization

Martin Beirne


The research reported in previous chapters demonstrates that empowerment is a highly charged, often fraught and inherently problematical process. Taking a panoramic view of the evidence, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that progress towards any sort of authentic empowerment has been hesitant and subject to frequent back-sliding and deterioration. We are not, as citizens and members of organizations, cumulatively better off as a result of either the recurring interest in direct participation or the broad range of supposedly empowering initiatives that have been introduced. Many companies that claim to empower employees in practice do nothing of the sort. There is evidence of window dressing and appearance management, with lots of schemes in various contexts favouring rhetoric over substance. They offer an impression that progressive management is at work, yet fail seriously to challenge, or regularly slip back to, more conventional values and command structures. Hopes have often been raised and then dashed, while legitimate concerns have been dismissed out of hand. From their own experiences, a large number of managers and employees consider empowerment schemes to be hollow or unpalatable, variously expressing scepticism, cynicism, frustration and distrust. As previously discussed, the legacy of the past remains potent, generating significant obstacles and constraints. To paraphrase an oft-quoted remark by Tom Burns from the 1970s, the workplace continues to be one of the most authoritarian environments in democratic society. Yet there is a danger of slipping from this sort of sober assessment to debilitating pessimism, and even negativity.

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