Paper by Steven van Baarle accepted in Organization Studies
In this study, we explore how empowerment initiatives can be understood by drawing on key notions from the power literature. By conceptualizing empowerment as the transformation toward ‘power to’ by actively using ‘power over’, we uncover power-related dynamics and tensions arising from empowerment initiatives in ways that go beyond prior work. Our in-depth case study of an empowerment initiative in a military organization highlights the complex challenges that powerful actors face when attempting to enhance the power to act elsewhere in the organization. Our findings demonstrate how power-related tensions arise between and within actors, as actors combine and shift between different power practices. We find that power tensions are not merely relational in nature (i.e., between actors), but also arise when individual cognition differs from action. By showing how the interplay of different power practices may result in major tensions, our findings provide a new perspective on why organizational empowerment initiatives may produce unintended outcomes or even completely fail. Moreover, while power-over, power-to and transformative power practices are typically explored separately, this study is one of the first to shed light on the complex relation between these power practices, thereby examining them together. Finally, this study demonstrates how cross-fertilization between the empowerment and power discourses may advance both fields.