Empowerment efforts at the workplace are typically divided into two analytical categories: social-structural and psychological empowerment. These have been extensively researched in terms of their application and handling as well as their outcome and general usefulness in human resource management. However, less research has dealt with communicative aspects of empowerment and the communicative interactions between change agents (managers) and recipients (employees) that frame empowerment efforts. To contribute to a more nuanced empowerment discourse, this paper uses a micro-/individual-oriented perspective on empowerment communication and theorizes why empowerment change efforts sometimes end up being counterproductive – leading to disempowerment rather than empowerment. As starting point for theorizing empowerment communication, a “basic communicative structure” is identified and analyzed as comprising a contractual and a communicative context, referring to conditions as outlined in written employment contracts on the one hand, and implicitly shared and understood definitions of the social employment situation on the other. Building on sociological and social-psychological theories of communicative interaction, it is argued that focusing on change agents’ and recipients’ mutual ascriptions of meanings to each other’s communicative messages might improve empowerment outcomes: A communicative analysis of common empowerment efforts suggests that recipients’ sensemaking of their roles and situations as defined by written employment and/or psychological contracts is not necessarily in line with the communicative meanings they ascribe to the change agents’ actions, and vice versa.
Weidenstedt, L. (2017). It Takes Two to Empower: The Communicative Context of Empowerment Change in the Workplace. Ratio Working Paper No. 300. Stockholm: Ratio.