Empowerment: Theoretical Background and Application
Kevin Dowling

In transitioning from traditional hierarchical management structure to a more open, democratic and participative approach, a key issue many organizations face is empowering their employees. Empowerment is defined for purposes of this paper as the ability of employees to " . . . use more judgment and discretion in their work and to participate more fully in decisions affecting their working lives." (Potterfield, 1999, p. 2). This paper includes an analysis of the theoretical background of empowerment and why it is important to the teams-building process, a brief discussion of empowerment procedures (including a guideline for devising an Empowerment Measure), and a discussion of possible problems that would arise in the process. Finally, there will be a critique of some of the empowerment theories.

Empowerment: Theoretical Background And Application

 The face of the contemporary workplace is drastically changing. More and more companies are realizing the value of more "flat", democratic organizational structure over the traditional autocratic, hierarchical management styles. Teams-based or participative organizations are now becoming the norm, instead of many layers of middle management making all the decisions effecting their subordinate workers. As companies grapple with these changes, a crucial step is employee empowerment. Specifically, how capable are the workers within this new teams-based organization of functioning without the supervision of middle management? How reliable and dependable can their decisions be as they take a more active role in the development of the organization? The notion of empowerment seeks to answer these questions. According to Potterfield (1999), and for purposes of this paper, empowerment will be best defined as a way of bestowing upon employees "the power to use more judgment and discretion in their work and to participate more fully in decisions affecting their working lives." (p. 2). If organizations are to have the full participation and input of its workers, then it is in its best interest to see to it that they are operating at their fullest capacities and with complete confidence in their abilities to make and implement these decisions. This paper will deal with both how to empower employees in a transition to a participative or teams-based organization, and pitfalls and critiques of this process. First, however, a broader theoretical/historical background in empowerment within a participative organization is necessary.

It is no small coincidence that the notion of empowerment in the workplace took root in the 1960’s, a turbulent time in America’s history (Potterfield, 1999; pp. 38-39). At every turn, it seemed that the overall zeitgeist of that era was to question the structures of traditional power and elicit a change for the betterment of humankind. There was most notably of course both the Civil Rights movement and the youth counterculture centered around anti-war sentiments, but this mindset even made inroads to academic and philosophical thinkers of the time. The field of psychology itself underwent far-reaching change as Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Kurt Goldstein, Anthony Sutich, and other notable professionals in the field spearheaded the Humanistic movement in reaction to what they felt was a monopoly formed by behaviorism (Wertz, 1994, pp. 14-15). It is Maslow, the central figure in the formation of Humanistic Psychology, who also proved highly influential in the changes and re-evaluations that Industrial/Organizational psychology underwent at the time, as well.

The impact Maslow made upon both these fields resides in his theories of self-actualization. Maslow’s objection to both the dominant behaviorism of the time and Freudian psychoanalysis before it was that both were only studies of the sick, the neurotics. He proposed a new sort of psychology focusing on healthy functioning, on what it meant to be a healthy person, to be relatively free of the sort of crippling neuroses that the other two disciplines focused on. More importantly, he wanted to start with a new set of assumptions, that human beings strive towards health and happiness, towards functioning at the fullest level of their capacities, what he called Self-Actualization. Neuroses, he argued, were the product of failing to reach this goal, caused either by individual or social limitations. Unhealthy societies breed unhealthy people, and any psychologies that start by assuming human beings were by nature, neurotic, were doing their clientele a grave disservice through a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maslow’s principles of self-actualization not only had impact in the field of psychology but perhaps just as importantly, in the workplace, as well. In his attempts to find a "laboratory" of sorts where he could bring about healthy functioning on a social level, Maslow turned to workplace settings, spending the summer of 1962 at a manufacturing plant in California. His book based on the notes and journals of that time were published originally under the title Eupsychian Management; "Eupsychia" being his term, derived from "utopia", for that culture comprised entirely of fully-functioning, self-actualized persons. Maslow observed interactions at the plant, and then began theorizing on what would make them more efficient and healthier. Although it went out of print and faded into obscurity at the time, massive interest in the contemporary business field brought about its republishing in 1998 under the new title Maslow on Management. This interest is no doubt related to the shifts most companies are making to participative-style settings, espoused in the work of one of the most formative writers in I/O psychology, Douglas McGregor.

McGregor, writing in the early ‘60’s, laid out the traditional "Theory X" organization as consisting of a rigid hierarchy of managers who needed to constantly supervise workers to get any kind of satisfactory results from them. Like the behaviorism Maslow was so opposed to in psychology, McGregor felt that Theory X organizations were making a dangerous and counterproductive assumption about their employees as inherently self-interested and lazy. Again, limiting assumptions within a dominant theory produced limiting results, this time being resentful, unmotivated and unfulfilled employees (Potterfied, 1999, pp. 21-22). Truly reflecting the spirit of the era, he argued that the time had come for a new sort of organization embracing democratic values where its workers had a more active, decisive role in its development, what he called "Theory Y" (p. 46). McGregor was openly influenced by Maslow’s theories of self-actualization (Maslow with Stephens and Heil, 1998, p. 15), and the two enjoyed a mutual collaboration and support of one another’s work, each influencing the other throughout their later careers. Key overlaps between McGregor and Maslow were the notions that human beings strive for healthy functioning, that they are capable of being autonomous, of making good decisions, and that they naturally seek out work as a process of continued growth and learning (p. 15; p. 38).

Empowerment is the implicit assumption underlying both of these theories. The sort of esteem that most people need in their process of actualization is, in most senses, synonymous with empowerment. According to Maslow (1998), people need a sense of self-determination, autonomy, dignity, and responsibility to continue to function in a healthy, growth-motivated way. When placed in an environment where any or all of these qualities are removed from them and they are instead forced to submit to another’s will and think and act under constant supervision, their sense of esteem and self-worth is robbed from them. Neurosis is the only result (pp. 55-56). Clearly, these qualities people desire echo the notion of empowerment. Hitchcock and Willard (1995) even go so far as to say that to be empowered is to be self-actualized (p. 44).

It is intrinsic to human functioning, then, for people to be and feel empowered, and this holds true even in the workplace. Authoritarian, suspicious supervision can only bring about unhealthy functioning and thus, unhealthy organizations. Organizations which instead fostered the very best in humans, which assumed that they were naturally motivated towards work and doing a good job, now would have access to the full potentiality of their employees. This is what McGregor aimed at in advancing his "Theory Y" organization, and is echoed in what Maslow, in his journals, would call "Enlightened Management".

Thus is the basis for the changes that the field of I/O Psychology underwent in the 1960’s. Both Maslow and McGregor did not see their theories immediately catch on in the business field, however (Potterfield, 1999, p. 45). It was not until the recessions of the ‘70’s and early ‘90’s, combined with increased competition from particularly the Japanese, that teams-based or participative approaches began to take a strong foothold in Corporate America. In an effort to keep costs low, organizations have undergone considerable downsizing and then found that by adopting a teams-based approach, they can function more efficiently with much fewer staff (p. 31; pp. 34-35). Beyond that, there is the advent of more sophisticated technologies, allowing for a more flexible role in the workplace, rather than the "specialized labor" credo of industrialism (McLagan and Nel, 1995; p. 16). The lure of empowerment was that it spoke to higher needs beyond just those provided by material rewards; it engaged people on a deeper level and spoke to their actualization needs (McCoy, 1997; pp. 199-201). With an empowered workforce functioning in a teams-based environment, organizations have found their workers to be more engaged and fully committed to the success of the company. These measures have met with great financial gain, as shown in several studies. Patricia McLagan and Christo Nel, in their book The Age of Participation: New Governance for the Workplace and the World (1995), cite several such studies. One, conducted by Mark Huselid (pp. 33-34), found that participative work practices were significantly linked to decreased turnover, increased productivity, and improved performance. Likewise, he found a substantial impact on financial benefits, increasing the company’s market value from $35,000 to $50,000 per employee. David Lewin found similar results in a Columbia University study (pp. 31-32), finding better financial performance associated with companies that share profits and gains with employees, that have an open information sharing system, and broad programs of employee involvement. Dennis Kavertz (pp. 30-31) found that high-performing companies more readily use participative management, highly decentralized, emphasizes people and creativity, and utilizes the best, most recent technology and resources available.

This method of organizational structure, whether called "self-directed work teams", "self-management", or "participative management", is now spreading rapidly. It is estimated in some circles that half of all workers in America will be operating in a teamwork capacity by the beginning of the next century (Hitchcock and Willard, 1995; p. vii).

Empowerment is a major issue accompanying this transition. Workers must be able to feel confident in their decision-making abilities, must feel supported by the company environment, and, most of all, must be able to make good, effective decisions in a teams-based organization. Empowerment is a process, and a necessary one in organizations where workers are used to doing their jobs essentially on autopilot as their supervisors make all decisions for them. The next issue is how to help employees feel empowered.

A good starting-point in the empowerment process in an organization is to see how empowered its employees feel (Robinson, 1997, p. 3). An Empowerment Measure, a current state assessment of the organization along several dimensions, should be devised and conducted. While there cannot be a catchall, generic Empowerment Measure procedure, it should cover the general areas listed below (these guidelines are based on Hitchcock and Willard (1995), pp. 7-8; Robinson (1997), pp. 5-7; and Potterfield (1999), Chapter 2: "Theories and Practices of Empowerment", pp. 49-59.).

Empowerment Measure Guidelines

Organizational Structure
Basically, a diagram of the organizational power structure, but also, a sort of cast of characters in the process. Identify all components of the organization. Included should be departments, job descriptions, and other key players, such as unions, employee action committees, the role of customers and suppliers, etc. Traditional ("Theory X") organizations would be hierarchical in arrangement, each individual manager responsible for a layer below them, on down to the worker. A key issue in regards to empowerment is how deep the hierarchy goes, i.e., how many layers of management it has. The more levels to the hierarchy, the less power and autonomy is relegated to workers. It also may be a good indicator of how autocratic the organization’s culture may be (see #5 below). Exceptionally deep structures will require significant empowerment implementation procedures and organizational restructuring if the transition to a teams environment is to be successful.

Management Style
Once the structure of the organization has been determined, there must now be a sort of assessment of how employees are managed. This is different from the personality assessments later in the process in that it is simply an assessment of each layer of the hierarchy to see how much supervision is given or needed and how broad the span of control is. Fairly broad spans of control would mean less supervision and thus perhaps workers more used to functioning relatively independently. More narrow spans mean a higher level of supervision and less autonomy for the workers. Also, attention should be paid to what sort of disciplinary practices there are, i.e., how is tardiness handled, is there a "quota" for production and what happens when employees do not meet it, evaluation process, etc. If these policies are in place to regulate and control, then empowerment will be low. If instead they are aimed more to guide the employees and develop and nurture them, then there is a high likelihood of feeling empowered.

Worker Profile
A more close analysis of the workers is also needed. Key issues are their range of tasks, the educational achievement they have and require, how diverse they are, how much they interact with other workers in other departments, and how they interact with their supervisors. Highly diverse work settings may indicate a need for an informal or flexible workplace, thus allowing for individual differences to emerge, which in turn enables workers to feel that they are able to be more fully themselves at their job. A more uniform workplace, on the other hand, may be stifling to these same feelings, creating instead conformity and lower personal empowerment. A large gap in education between management and workers may also be a hindrance to feelings of personal adequacy and competence among the latter. Interestingly, this step also illuminates a glaring exception in associating empowerment with teams-based organizations in regards to independence. In an organization with highly specialized, individualized employees, there will be high empowerment, but not necessarily a high likelihood of success for a teams-based approach.

Informal Power
Hand-in-hand with examining organizational structure (formal power) and level of supervision is also the somewhat more tricky task of analyzing informal power within the organization. Informal power is how much influence individuals or entities outside the recognized structure have over the workers. This could be anything from a budding Unionization movement, to a "clique" of workers, to the veteran of the department whom everyone goes to for advice. It is also indicated, to some extent, by the level of supervision the workers have from management. Workers under a fairly "broad" span of control from their manager have a greater degree of autonomy, it has been noted, and thus already have a form of "informal empowerment". Also, it is more likely in this situation that there will be more sources of informal power within those broad units. It is important to recognize these sources of informal power in order not to clash with them in the empowerment process but instead to acknowledge and include them to some extent. A good way to discover these informal power sources are to observe the day-to-day functioning of the workers, noting who they interact with and what the nature of the interaction is. Included could also be the study of the workers on breaks, lunches, and after work to see how they organize socially. If there are cliques within work groups, or unofficial "leaders" within departments, they, too, might be an issue to individual empowerment. Empowerment means all persons involved feel competent and secure in the face of little or no direct supervision, rather than a select few.

Organizational Culture
Many of the preceding steps have provided good indicators of what the culture of the organization is; that is, what the "personality" of the organization is or perceives itself to be. Issues such as the formal and informal power structures and level of supervision of workers all serve to point towards how open or flexible the organization is. Other factors to include in assessing the culture are a detailed look at its history (including unionization or other workers’ rights movements within the company), its mission statement, and what it provides to the public and how it does so. Additionally included should be how financially stable the company currently is, and how financially stable the employees perceive it to be. Employees who feel they are in a stable work environment will feel more secure and empowered. Advancement opportunities and rewards/incentive programs should also be described, as they feed into how committed and employee feels to making positive contributions and whether or not they are recognized for their efforts. Morale, too, provides a good measure of the culture of the organization. Essentially, the issue in this step is to see what assumptions underlie the organization’s day-to-day functioning, which in turn will point to how open this organization will be towards a more empowered workforce, and how capable it will be of maintaining it.

Flow of Information
How is communication handled? Does it merely go up and down through the ranks, or can it go across to other departments? Are new ideas freely encouraged or is there a strict procedure to be followed without exception? Are employees kept informed of the organization’s development, good and bad, or are they given orders at the last minute? Organizations with a restrictive, secretive environment where information is tightly controlled will have less informed less empowered employees. Organizations with a more open environment, where ideas are encouraged from all levels will have a freer flow of information, better-informed employees, and thus higher empowerment.

Employee Assessment
This can either be a formal or informal process of essentially gauging the personalities of those people involved, and how they interact with each other. How flexible are the executives? What attitude do the managers have for workers, beyond just their level of supervision? How do employees feel they are being treated, how much do they trust the motives of their supervisors? How do they feel about their work, how connected are they to it; do they do it because they want to or are they following orders? How do they feel about success or failure; do they attribute it to their own actions (internal locus of control) or to other people or situations (external locus of control)? How do any of these people feel about more active involvement in the decision making process at the worker’s level? This can take the form of asking these questions directly or through a more formal process such as by administering any of the organizational "personality" tests available. This process may provide some of the most direct evidence for the presence or lack of empowerment among employees.

Finally, a basic interview process could be conducted in a broad cross-section of  the organization to get a grasp on how empowered persons feel within their job. A single question can be asked, along the lines of what that employee does when they are confronted by a new or novel problem at work, and then basing the extended interview on that response. Many of the areas above would then be covered in this process. Does that employee go to anyone for assistance? Are they required to seek help? Do they go to a coworker in an informal way, just to get reassurances, or do they go to a trusted veteran in the department? Do they go to the supervisor because they are required to, or out of respect? Or, do they avoid going to their managers altogether, even when they are required by their rules to do so? Key themes in these interviews can then be looked for which will give a good indication of empowerment by showing areas of formal and informal power, how much employees are supervised, whether or not they trust or are allowed to trust their own judgment, etc.

Again, this measure is not and cannot be a fixed, specific procedure, but instead should be viewed as a loose guideline for gauging the current environment of the organization to see how receptive it is towards a more democratic design, and what factors will be effecting this change. Sections can be omitted or streamlined, based on the organization itself. Applying a measure that covers both the general areas and the cross- sectional interview question listed above should give a fairly good picture of how empowered employees are in their jobs.

For example, using this process at one company reveals a complex, hierarchical organization composed of deep layers of management, each with a tight span of control. Managers are not isolated from their employees but sit directly within eyesight of them to enforce productivity standards. Workers do not require a High School diploma and many do not have one, while managers usually require at least a college degree if not more, thus allowing for very little room for advancement for workers. A unionization movement was implemented within the past ten years but was quashed by management through somewhat questionable means. Executives are far removed from production, and have no direct communication with workers but instead do so through either the many deep layers of management or through memos or recorded announcements.

Short of a financial crisis, this organization presents a fairly bleak opportunity for any sort of empowerment procedures, much less a teams-based approach. Compare this to another hypothetical organization, which recently underwent a severe financial upheaval resulting in downsizing of middle management. The organization is currently much "flatter" with not so many hierarchical levels, and managers that do remain have a broad span of control, meaning they do not have or want close supervision of their workers. Here, the situation is ripe for a more teams-based approach and thus higher empowerment opportunities for workers. Neither of these two examples is necessarily a list of the absolute qualities an organization must have in order to require empowerment, but are two hypothetical extremes at either end of the Theory X/Theory Y scale.

Once an assessment of empowerment in the organization has been made, the process of empowerment can begin. The ultimate goal of empowerment is to create a workbase of employees who are informed and engaged in the organization’s functioning, and feel enabled to contribute through their actions (McCoy, 1997, pp. 192-195). It is, as has already been said, a crucial quality in any teams-based organization. Thus, the process of empowerment closely follows the process of transitioning to teams (based on comparisons between the teams-building process in Hitchcock and Willard (1995) and the empowerment procedures in Robinson (1997).

First, there must be a "champion", a (usually) high-ranking person who is utterly convinced of the benefits of re-engineering the workplace to be more participative/empowered. Next, there must be support from the executives beyond just those theoretical values mentioned above; they must also see within this process a true gain to the company and not merely be following a trend. An assessment such as the Empowerment Measure must be taken of the organization to see how compatible it would be to the process. After the assessment is taken, a design committee comprised of various people throughout various levels of the organization is formed to begin re-envisioning and re-engineering the organization. A new goal is created for the organization to work towards, with the shared contribution of all levels and members. Roles are redefined and boundaries are set. At every level, there is an open sharing of ideas and a free flow of communication, the key in creating a more participative or empowered organizations. With better access to information, employees will be much better informed, which in turn allows them to feel more engaged in the functioning of the organization; two of the goals in empowering employees. By being better informed, the employees are more totally able to see that the organization is truly undergoing a change in its very structure, which also allows them to feel further committed to the process in transforming their work environment for the better. Both empowering employees and transforming the organization to a teams-based environment is a long, arduous process in that involves active learning from mistakes, and cannot be expected to happen overnight or even over the course of a few months.

Both of the preceding topics have been done somewhat in a vacuum, a sort of assumption of both a tabula rasa organization and employees. There are, naturally, many problems that can arise in the empowerment process. Many workers may resist these new responsibilities; they in fact like having their decisions made for them and will resent the extra burdens (and work) that participative designs would bring (Hitchcock and Willard, 1995, p. 36). One possible way around this theory is to show these employees how truly empowered they now are by giving them a challenging task to figure out themselves, which will ultimately prove in their best interest; for instance, devising a new work schedule (p.36). An open and ongoing process of communication with employees is needed. If they are shown that indeed the organization is undergoing radical change, and they will now be truly responsible with no managers supervising them, many will step up to the challenge.

There still may be those workers who resent the implications of greater self-direction, possibly even arising from a palpable fear. There is an interesting hypothesis underlying this reaction. Maslow has called this the Jonah Complex, "the fear of one’s own greatness" (Maslow, 1971, p. 34). While Maslow discussed this term in a more mystical, spiritual context, it is associated as a sort of classic block to self-actualization. Since empowerment speaks to the same sort of needs as self-actualization, it could be drawn that there is the possibility of a collective sort of Jonah Complex at the heart of many conflicts in organizational transitions. Truly engaging in the work process--that is, committing all of one’s self and their energies in a total way--is an unsettling prospect for some people, especially when before all they had to do was "turn off" and allow others to decide for them. The Jonah Complex was a relatively new theory to Maslow, one which he only started looking at more closely shortly before his death. He did not apply it to his Enlightened Management principles, so a more thorough sense of the term is never dealt with in his writings on the workplace, and it is only a hypothetical relationship in this case. Again, open communication, perhaps coupled even with some psychotherapy techniques, are the best ways to confront this problem and bring it out in the open.

Employees may also be cynical and suspicious of this approach as another way to get more work out of them for less money (Hitchcock and Willard, 1995, p. 27). The word "empowerment" has, it seems, come to be viewed with derision by many in the workforce as another meaningless trend (Purser and Cabana, 1998, p. 130; p. 133). Hitchcock and Willard (1995), in fact, even allow that the term should not be specifically spoken in the beginning phases of the procedure (p. 8) to avoid such cynicism. This suspicion of empowerment practices has some measure of truth to it, and will be further discussed in the conclusion. For now, it is best to say that allowing employees to take an active part in the change process from the very beginning, and showing them that their organization is truly changing will remove some of their wariness.

There is also the danger of the employees feeling too empowered; in feeling so independent of other facets of the organization that there might also be troubles in transitioning to teams, as mentioned in #3 of the guidelines of the Empowerment Measure. In other situations, employees might be too overzealous in their new sense of empowerment, what Hitchcock and Willard (1995) call "testing" (p. 42). Both of these problems involve an issue of boundaries and role definition. In the case of employees who are too empowered already and thus operate independently of the rest of the organization, there should be a process of winning them over, just as there is at the executive level. They should be made to see the benefits to themselves and the new organization. Their current "empowerment" is more self-directed, a status rather than a process of actively participation. The goal in this case is to transition from this kind of expert power to the type of power where they are more engaged in the organization (Hitchcock and Willard, 1995, pp. 26-27). In cases where employees are testing their newfound sense of power, a clear setting of boundaries is needed and can possibly be avoided by communicating these concerns in the re-engineering phase (pp. 42-43).

Role identification is also at the heart of one last major problem: management. If the organization is to change in the best and most complete way to a participative, teams-based environment with employees actively involved in the decision-making process, then middle management’s role will be changing significantly. They are caught in the middle: they are not executives, and so do not engage in the overarching decisions that involve the entire development of the company, nor are they workers who contribute elements of production. They are being asked to give up some, if not all, of their power. Their role, in many senses, was their power. Understandably, this produces resistance. Some theorists (notably Purser and Cabana; see conclusion below) advocate an utter dismantling of the middle-management structure in order to have complete change. This method, while effective in dealing with possible resistance from managers, is a bit harsh and eliminates a valuable resource for energy and ideas. Another approach would be to keep the managers on, but in a different capacity, after an active, mutual process of role re-definition. In this case, they are shown, like executives, the benefits of giving up their power to the employees and learn the new dynamics of the more democratic empowerment. They learn not to identify so strongly their personal identity with their power over others and reshape their roles to be more of a guide than a supervisor. Hitchcock and Willard (1995) take this route and suggest that managers are the best resource in coaxing change from the employees and make good "champions". Unfortunately, they do not answer adequately the issue of what managers do after the change process is complete, and so the role of managers in the new company is left up to them.

As can be seen, communication is a key to curbing many of these problems as or before they arise. Allowing the employees to confront these issues as a learning process not only brings about a solution solve them, but also further serves to reinforce their own new-found sense of empowerment.

Finally, though, even with these problems dealt with, there are criticisms of empowerment theory, specifically with its ideology. While it has been noted that employees sometimes view the term "empowerment" with cynicism and distrust, this reputation can be at times well founded. Purser and Cabana (1998) in particular are wary of empowerment practices, warning against what they call "pseudo-empowerment" (p. 132). This is a practice of simply putting a new face on an old scheme; hollow maneuvers designed to make employees feel more empowered while they are still subordinate to traditional power structures. In true empowerment, according to Purser and Cabana, the old authority structure is challenged and even changed, transferring the power directly to the work teams (p. 132.). They are also sharply critical about much of the humanistic ideology that underlies these practices, noting that both McGregor and Maslow still focused on management and leadership, and not the workers (p. 133). Again, if the old management hierarchy is not broken down, and complete authority given to the workers, then terms like "self-actualization", "autonomy", "fulfillment", and "democracy" are merely empty words, tools of manipulation in the interest of traditional power (pp. 132-138). Ideology becomes rhetoric; theories have no roots in application.

But, in conclusion, ideology is the most important part of the empowerment process. Potterfield (1999) a proponent of empowerment theory, acknowledges these criticisms that empowerment can be abused as a tool of authority. However, he maintains the importance of the ideals underlying empowerment practices, for that is what keeps the movement vital and viable (p. 12; p. 135). Employees must also be a committed agent in the change process rather than passive recipients of power, for without them actively involving themselves in the process, they continue to be tools in the very same system they are supposed to be dismantling (p.135). If employees and managers and executives truly grasp the real meaning of empowerment and what it means, then total democracy is the only result. Power cannot be given or taken; it is a mutual process of understanding that begins with the person themselves.


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