The Business of Employee Empowerment: Democracy and Ideology in the Workplace. – Review – book review
Henry P. Guzda
The Business of Employee Empowerment: Democracy and Ideology in the Workplace. By Thomas A. Potterfield. Westport, CT, Quorum Books, 1999, 161 pp. $55.
The opening scene of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth has three witches stirring their satanic brew while the play’s namesake comments that “so foul and fair a day I have not seen.” While reading this book, one might conjure similar thoughts that so foul and yet fair a book I have not read in a long time. At times, The Business of Employee Empowerment is brilliant, interesting, and remarkably analytical. Yet, there are some assertions that are frustrating, incongruous, or misleading. These distractions, however, are only minor problems. Thomas Potterfield has written a valuable contribution to the growing literature and understanding of employee empowerment, participatory management, total quality management, or whatever the term used to describe the various and myriad constructs of labor-management cooperation.
The author segments the process and evolution of the empowerment into three basic categories: ideology, domination, and freedom. These segments, he asserts, are grossly misunderstood, and those misunderstandings are perpetuated in literature, and become too structured for the process to substantially succeed. Thus, complete power-sharing between employees and managers never occurs in the world of work. Workers never really escape the industrial serfdom of the job site.
The book is basically divided into two distinct sections: the first section analyzes the theoretical development of the segments, and the second illustrates the validity of Potterfield’s theories as applied to a case study of a fictitiously named Fortune 100 company. In the author’s words, one of the chief goals of the publication is to illustrate how the current and past structures of “empowerment” distorted reality in ways that serve to protect and sustain existing relations of power and dominance within the corporation.
Without citing it as a reference, this parallels the “paradigm theory” of the often cited psychologist Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s theory is that any existing school of thought is dominant until challenged by a new paradigm. The established paradigm immediately tries to eliminate or absorb the new ideology, and if unsuccessful is replaced by that new theory. The new paradigm or hybrid of the old one is dominant until it is challenged. Political economists following the serainal theories of Harry Braverman in the seminal work Labor and Monopoly Capitalism will easily recognize this process as it applies to labor-management relations. Basically, Potterfield argues that the so-called “empowerment” process is a band-aid attempt to stem the hemorrhaging of corporatist capitalism in a rapidly changing global and technological society. It adapts the current system to market forces by giving workers a sense of workplace control without really changing the institutional structure.
Yet this is not, in the author’s opinion, such an evil or pernicious thing. If capitalism had to evolve to provide true workplace democracy it would benefit the system and workers. Potterfield works for the truest capitalistic institution, the multinational corporation. He apparently is not a practicing radical, except perhaps in theoretical thinking. His resources for this book are very balanced, running from radical theorists Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse to management icons Philip Crosby, Edwards Demming, and Peter Drucker. In between, he consults a range of labor-management and organizational development experts such as Tom Peters and Robert Waterman (Getting to Yes); MIT Professor Thomas Kochan (The Transformation of Industrial Relations); and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (The Work of Nations). In reading this book, and the psychological implications for empowerment as a means to pacify the workforce, I was reminiscent of Marx’s adage that religion is the opiate of the masses.
As mentioned, there are some frustrating flaws in The Business of Employee Empowerment. The misreading of labor history is probably the most glaring error. “Unlike many of the earlier attempts at participatory management, empowerment has really taken hold of the collective imaginations of corporate leaders and management theorists,” the book claims. Later it states that empowerment is an attempt to create more democratic and participatory approaches to management beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1994 Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations (which the author fails to cite in the bibliography as a resource), chaired by Harvard Professor and former Secretary of Labor John Dunlop, acknowledges that Filene’s Department Store in the 1890s marked the first real acceptance of employee empowerment by management. In addition, the often cited book, The American Idea of Industrial Democracy, by Milton Derber, gives a complete history of employee participation from the Civil War through the 1960s.
It will also appear obvious to the serious student of industrial relations that some basic resource materials published within the last 10 years or so are missing. While no study can cite all the sources on any given topic, such works as Negotiating for the Future, by Irving and Barry Bluestone, the former one of the architects of the Saturn experiment, should have been cited. As a result, those persons interested in fully understanding the process of employee empowerment should read other resources to complement this book. Obviously, The Business of Employee Empowerment is not for the casual reader, but then it was not meant to be.
It should also be noted that the trade unionist is likely to take issue with some of the claims made in the book. The contributions and participation of unions is not even mentioned until far into the book. Potterfield’s statement that corporate America gave workers a middle class standard of living will also draw the attention of trade unionist readers. Even if one considers the impact of “welfare capitalism,” they must accept that this was a reaction against unions and an attempt to circumvent their influence.
Yet despite minor and frustrating errors, the book is very good and worthwhile. The shop-floor team leader, the human resource director, or the student of “work” theory, however, will find it easy to digest. The author leaves readers pondering the question, “Are there companies where empowerment’s emancipatory potential is more fully developed, where employees participate fully in all of the decisions that affect their working lives?” Potterfield, as well as many industrial relations scholars, are waiting for an answer. Most workers would like that answer to be “yes.”
–Henry P. Guzda Industrial Relations Specialist U.S. Department of Labor
COPYRIGHT 2000 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group