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Good Business and Social Responsibility

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:52pm

This article in the Boston Globe reviewed recent research by Gretchen Spreitzer, a professor at the University of Michigan, that examines the impact of workplace empowerment on overall societal health, primarily from an employee perspective.  That is, it appears that in countries that have have empowered employees, the societies in general are less violent, more open, and more empowered.  Further, the thinking is that often it is the business that drives the changes in society, and not the other way around.

Not being an economist, I have no idea how much of this is correlational versus causal, in either direction.  It is also much more "macro" in nature than I am used to considering (psychologists tend to consider issues on a more "micro" level).  But I did find the article interesting and relevant, given my general interest in social capital and connectivity.  It seems to make intuitive sense that A) a business that fosters social capital within its organization (e.g. encouraging autonomy and empowerment, a sense of community and shared goals, etc.) will function better long-term than an organization that is more strictly top-down, and B) that the skills and experience of participating in such an environment at work would generalize outside of the workplace.  The article also states that these findings will certainly spur more research in this area, which is obviously a good thing in this age of a global economy. 

A couple of other, personal observations.  First, I recall reading in Stephen Ambrose'sD-Day about the empowerment differences between the soldiers of the Allied Forces versus the Germans. He briefly discussed how a flexibility of thinking allowed to even the lowest-ranked members of the Allied troops often proved crucial to the success of their ultimate victory, whereas the Germans had much more of a top-down, "follow your orders to the letter, circumstances be damned" approach (not hard to imagine, given Hitler's personality style).  It found this observation extremely interesting at the time, simply because the military is commonly portrayed as a rigid, "rank is all-powerful" institution.  However, it appears that even in an organization where there is a necessity for rank, an allowance for some flexibility and empowerment has its advantages (and I would imagine this mentality has increased exponentially in the Armed Forces since WWII, though I have absolutely no knowledge of this - just a guess).

This would certainly have an application, then, in government bureaucracies as well.  In fact, working in a correctional environment, I have noticed small efforts being made by the management to provide some sense of community and empowerment to the employees in the correctional environment, which is actually quite commendable given the quasi-military structure and history of correctional agencies.  However, much of the "Follow your orders for eight hours, then go home" mentality still exists, so there is a long way to go.  Given, though, that at the most recent staff training, a half-hour training block was devoted to the concept of "Forward Thinking," for all staff to not only listen to, but actually participate in, was encouraging.  I can't imagine that topic would have been presented to the rank and file 10 years ago. 

And that leads to one of the caveats mentioned in the article - true empowerment vs. "lip service."  The efforts may be small, and implemented in fits and starts, and with associated problems, etc., but they must be implemented with a genuine interest towards empowerment.  If it's just catch phrases and feel good once-a-year meetings where everyone slaps each other's backs at the end because they put a check in a box, then I'd imagine what you would get is something akin to the birthday party scene in the movie Office Space.  Employees generally aren't stupid, and they'll know whether you're generally interested in their opinions, or just humoring them.  There'll always be some percentage of employees who complain regardless (not in the federal government, of course, but I'm sure in other places :)), but those are people you generally can't reach anyway.  For the others, though, increasing their sense of belonging, empowerment, and social connectivity to each other and the mission is a win-win for all involved.

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