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PUBLISHED ARTICLE: Is Empowerment Right for Asia?
13-Jan-12 [ by Larry Chao ] 29387 Read and 0 Comment

Larry Chao writes‚ are western management practices all they?re cracked up to be?

 

For years multinationals operating in Asia have been importing western management practices such as empowerment into their local operations in hopes of improving the performance of their people. 

 

In some cases‚ these practices have proven useful and have produced good results.  More often than not‚ however‚ learnings have gone in one ear and out the other.

 

Often these practices have been viewed as interesting but irrelevant.  While efforts to implement them have been noble‚ results have been short-lived.

 

So should we be trying to apply western management practices here in Asia?  If so‚ is there a better way of doing it?

 

There are two conditions that affect the successful acceptance of western management practices: First‚ how ready people are to be empowered‚ and second‚ how much empowerment is needed.

 

Are people ready to be empowered?

 

We need to recognize that in general‚ Asian workers are very different than their western counterparts when it comes to dealing with authority figures.  Through education‚ upbringing and culture‚ many Asians have learned to be obedient and not challenge figureheads such as parents‚ teachers or bosses. 

 

The idea of empowerment works only when underlings have reached a certain status or level of seniority.  They are simply not ready to be empowered anytime beforehand.

 

Go to any typical university in Thailand‚ for example‚ and you will rarely see students challenge their teachers.  It is all about taking notes‚ rote memorization and compliance.  There is limited individual creativity‚ critical thinking and debating.  The teacher provides the knowledge; the student learns.

 

The Asian business world is very much the same.  Despite all the brouhaha and benefits over empowerment‚ few business leaders can honestly say their people practice it on a regular basis.  It is the exception‚ rather than the rule‚ where leaders delegate and empowerment takes root.

 

Moreover‚ too few subordinates take the initiative and proactively solve problems.  Taking risks in a corporate environment is not part of their repertoire.  Usually‚ the boss tells; the subordinate obeys.  There is very little room for going against the grain and feeling empowered‚ unless it is doing exactly what the boss wants.

 

 

 

What much empowerment is needed?

 

In many western societies‚ individualism and self expression in the workplace is prevalent.  Workers have gained a voice and the right to influence their destiny.  This has played nicely into the concept of empowerment‚ where managers allow workers to make decisions on their own.

 

There are endless examples‚ where empowered workers have produced better business results.  Empowering gives them more control of their environment.  In theory‚ they are happier and more productive.  The case for spreading empowerment to other parts of the world is strong.

 

Yet is it always a good idea to empower workers?  And if so‚ how empowered should they be?  While strong worker involvement usually means more commitment to the welfare of the business‚ this is only true if they are committed to doing what is in the best interest of the company and its customers.

 

Take‚ for example my recent travel adventure in the U.S.  Last month I was flying down to Ft. Lauderdale Florida from New York on a well known U.S. airline with a reputation for empowered workers.  But it was a terrible experience.  The planes were dirty‚ one bathroom was broken‚ and the air hostesses acted annoyed at the passengers.

 

When I complained about the bad service and problems‚ I received an earful of excuses for why none of this was the fault of the airline.   The empowered air hostess gave me the impression that she could care less about my problems.  She was much more interested in avoiding responsibility and standing up for her right not to do her job.

 

In the end‚ she dared me to write a letter to complain to management.  Her defiance and reluctance to respond to passenger complaints‚ stood in stark contrast with spirit of empowerment.

 

This would never happen on an Asian airline such as Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific.  As far as I can see‚ in these cases‚ people follow orders and procedures aimed at efficiency‚ safety and passenger service.  They are not paid to feel empowered or express their individuality on the job.  They are paid to follow protocol - and it works.

 

I?m not suggesting that the Asian way of compliance is better than the western way of empowerment‚ but it does suggest that there is a time and place for empowerment.  Employees need to be ?ready? to be empowered‚ and the situation should dictate the degree of empowerment required.


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