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A Sociology of Empowerment: The Relevance of Communicative Contexts for Workplace Change
Stockholm University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Sociology.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-3263-1793
2017 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Empowerment has been a popular concept in management and leadership practice and research for more than forty years. The intentions behind empowerment at the workplace are positive: empowered employees should experience a greater degree of influence, decision-making latitude, and meaningfulness. This is achieved through transfers of power, such as increases in autonomy and responsibility. Although empowerment efforts have often been shown to successfully result in empowered and highly involved employees, there has also been research that shows the opposite: the so-called paradox of empowerment is a well-known problem that refers to failed empowerment efforts through which beneficiaries feel disempowered rather than empowered.

This thesis comprises three papers intended to contribute to empowerment research and practice within a sociological framework that offers a better understanding of implicit assumptions between employer and employee and the unintended consequences these can have on the outcome of empowerment change efforts. The analyses utilize a communicative approach in line with sociological and social-psychological theories of communication and interaction.

The first two papers are theoretical analyses, one examining the general concept of empowerment (Paper I), the other focusing more specifically on empowerment in workplace contexts (Paper II). Paper III is an empirical analysis that investigates some of the theoretical assumptions made in Papers I and II.

The first paper analyzes empowerment from a sociological point of view and identifies possible mechanisms behind the paradox of empowerment. It is argued that such paradoxes may evolve from discrepancies between approaching empowerment from a purely economic and structural perspective versus a communicative and relational one. It concludes with the observation that, although their agency may be increased on a structural level, empowerees may experience a parallel decrease of agential options on a communicative level.

The second paper deals with empowerment at the workplace as a management or leadership technique. Focusing on relational aspects, a “basic communicative structure” is identified. This is analyzed as comprising a contractual and a communicative context that should be taken into consideration by empowerers in order to avoid misunderstandings in the recipients’ sensemaking processes. Paper II concludes by arguing that the way recipients make sense of their roles and situations as defined by employment and/or psychological contracts might not necessarily be in line with the communicative meanings they ascribe to the change agents’ actions, and vice versa.

The third paper analyzes employees’ orientations and attitudes toward empowerment and the relevance of their attitudes for the success of empowerment efforts. These issues are explored by means of survey data from 268 employees in the Swedish retail sector. Results indicate that age and work intensity (part-time vs. full-time), as well as cohabitation status may have significant impacts on how empowerment efforts are approached and received by employees.

The thesis as a whole provides insights into sociological issues of empowerment, both generally and particularly in management and leadership contexts and concludes that the communicative context of empowerment interactions plays a significant role in employees’ empowerment orientations.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Stockholm: Department of Sociology, Stockholm University , 2017. , 89 p.
Series
Stockholm studies in sociology, ISSN 0491-0885 ; 72
Keyword [en]
empowerment, disempowerment, paradox of empowerment, empowerment orientation, human resource management, organizational behavior, psychological contract, sociological theory, communication, interaction, quantitative survey study
National Category
Social Sciences Sociology (excluding Social Work, Social Psychology and Social Anthropology) Work Sciences
Research subject
Sociology
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-146521ISBN: 978-91-7649-960-3 (print)ISBN: 978-91-7649-961-0 (electronic)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:su-146521DiVA: diva2:1139507
Public defence
2017-11-10, De Geersalen, Geovetenskapens hus, Svante Arrhenius väg 14, Stockholm, 10:00 (English)
Opponent
Supervisors
Note

At the time of the doctoral defense, the following papers were unpublished and had a status as follows: Paper 2: Manuscript. Paper 3: Manuscript.

Available from: 2017-10-18 Created: 2017-09-07 Last updated: 2017-10-04Bibliographically approved
List of papers
1. Empowerment Gone Bad: Communicative Consequences of Power Transfers
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Empowerment Gone Bad: Communicative Consequences of Power Transfers
2016 (English)In: Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, ISSN 2378-0231, Vol. 2, 1-11 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Empowerment as a positively connoted concept has been studied extensively in applied research in different fields. Yet its unfavorable, paradoxical character has so far not received enough theoretical attention to make it possible to improve empowerment efforts. In this theoretically informed analysis of the processes that lead to the paradox of empowerment, the author argues that it evolves from discrepancies between approaching empowerment from a structural versus a communicative viewpoint: empowerees’ agency might be increased on a structural level but simultaneously decreased on a communicative level, leaving them feeling disempowered.

Keyword
empowerment, disempowerment, paradox, reciprocity, paternalism, agency
National Category
Sociology
Research subject
Sociology
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:su:diva-145158 (URN)10.1177/2378023116672869 (DOI)
Available from: 2017-07-18 Created: 2017-07-18 Last updated: 2017-09-08Bibliographically approved
2. It Takes Two to Empower: Exploring the Communicative Context of Empowerment Change in the Workplace
Open this publication in new window or tab >>It Takes Two to Empower: Exploring the Communicative Context of Empowerment Change in the Workplace
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Keyword
empowerment, disempowerment, employee engagement, sensemaking, communicative interaction
National Category
Sociology
Research subject
Sociology
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:su:diva-146518 (URN)
Available from: 2017-08-31 Created: 2017-08-31 Last updated: 2017-09-08Bibliographically approved
3. Does One Size Fit All? Investigating Different Empowerment Orientations in the Heterogeneous Workforce of the Swedish Retail Sector
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Does One Size Fit All? Investigating Different Empowerment Orientations in the Heterogeneous Workforce of the Swedish Retail Sector
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Keyword
empowerment, orientation to work, preferences, attitudes, retail, survey data
National Category
Sociology
Research subject
Sociology
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:su:diva-146520 (URN)
Available from: 2017-08-31 Created: 2017-08-31 Last updated: 2017-09-08Bibliographically approved

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