Entrepreneurial Empowerment: You Are Only as Good as Your Employees
Abstract: As employees are increasingly recognized as an important source of ideas and inspiration, contemporary leadership research finds that the central task of leaders is to empower employees to realize their skills and talents to achieve an organizations’ visions and goals. Drawing on this leadership premise, this study develops the concept of entrepreneurial empowerment (EE). EE has structural and psychological dimensions that empower employees to utilize their knowledge to solve the internal Hayekian knowledge problem. EE introduces an endogenous discovery process in which entrepreneurial leaders play a central role in empowering employees to use their localized knowledge. This entrepreneurial discovery process offers opportunities to adapt and innovate using the knowledge experiences of employees. This study underscores that a venture’s success is not tied to an entrepreneur’s inspirational ideas (or, more broadly, their asymmetric knowledge experiences), but to their ability to inspire ideas from all levels of their business hierarchy.
JEL Classification: B53, M12, M54
Desmond Ng ([email protected]) is associate professor of agribusiness and strategy management at Texas A&M University. The author would like to thank the special guest editor, Professor Bylund, and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions.
“No company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.” – Jack Welch, General Electric
To succeed in an increasingly complex and changing market environment, ventures can no longer compete on the basis of their leader’s capabilities, knowledge, talents, and vision alone (e.g., Cowen and Parker 1997; Foss, Foss, and Klein 2007; Rigtering, Weitzel, and Muehlfeld 2019). Ideas to develop new products and services can come from anywhere, from loyal customers, blog spheres, supply chain partners, social media, and above all employees (Rigtering, Weitzel, and Muehlfeld 2019). For instance, 3M established a culture in which employees are encouraged to develop “home-grown” solutions to addressing their customers’ needs. These homegrown solutions transformed a small-scale mining venture into a leading material sciences company and have earned the company a spot on Fast Company’s Best Workplace for Innovators list (Rubinson 2009; FastCo Works 2019). Companies such as 3M underscore that in order to succeed entrepreneurs must be able to adapt to ideas that extend beyond their own (e.g., Lee, Lee, and Pennings 2001; Rigtering, Weitzel, and Muehlfeld, 2019; Sarasvathy 2001). Adaptation promotes an integration of different knowledge experiences that enables the venture to respond to changing market conditions and opportunities not previously considered (e.g., Hargadon and Sutton 1997; Sarasvathy 2001; Sullivan and Marvel 2011). Hence, although successful ventures are commonly attributed to an entrepreneur’s ideas, talents, and vision (e.g., Witt 1998, 1999), entrepreneurs today face increasing demands to adapt their ideas to the knowledge experiences of others (see Cowen and Parker 1997; Rigtering, Weitzel, and Muehlfeld 2019; Sarasvathy 2001).
Although the role of Austrian economics in contemporary entrepreneurship research remains a subject of much discussion and debate (Klein and Bylund 2014), Austrian economics is particularly suited to addressing the challenges faced by today’s entrepreneurs. According to the subjective tenets of Austrian economics, entrepreneurs operate in a sea of subjective experiences in which they adapt by mobilizing these knowledge experiences to address opportunities not currently met by the market. This adaption has been widely understood as the Hayekian knowledge problem: the problem of how to utilize knowledge experiences that are broadly distributed among the productive members of society. F. A. Hayek (1945) argued that the productive members of society, such as employees, have a knowledge of the “particular circumstances of time and place” (521). This knowledge involves an employee’s particular understandings of the special circumstances, challenges, and local conditions of their job. Hayek (1945) argued that a single mind, such as that of a centrally planner, cannot offer an adaptation that can utilize this “knowledge of particular circumstance of time and place,” because this knowledge is highly localized to an employees’ experiences. He instead argued that employees are in the best position to utilize this knowledge because their understandings of the special circumstances of their job offered employees or “arbitrageurs” (522) opportunities to exploit local price differentials not known by others. This arbitrage function was later formalized by Israel M. Kirzner’s (1979, 2009, 2019) concept of the alert entrepreneur. Alertness involves discovering price arbitrage opportunities by bringing into use factors of productions at a price less than their valued uses. Specifically, as employees are key factors of a firm’s production, alertness solves the Hayekian knowledge problem, because the alert entrepreneur is incentivized to bring into use their employee’s knowledge to discover the price arbitrage opportunities of the market.
Although Kirzner (1979) has been credited with solving the Hayekian knowledge problem (Elert and Henrekson 2019; Foss and Klein 2016), the concept of alertness implicitly assumes that an employee’s knowledge can be centralized under an entrepreneur’s leadership. This leadership involves a position of authority in which the entrepreneur has the power to institute their vision over their employees (Shamir, House, and Arthur, 1993; Witt, 1998). In this position, however, an entrepreneur cannot readily identify their employees’ knowledge, because the entrepreneur’s authority is removed from their employees’ day-to-day experiences. This is consistent with Hayek (1945), who argued that employees are best suited to making decisions on how to allocate their time, resources, and efforts in dealing with their daily operational challenges because employees are most familiar with the circumstances facing them in carrying out their tasks. Hence, the challenge facing the entrepreneur is that their inability to centralize their employees’ knowledge introduces an internal Hayekian knowledge problem (see also Elert and Henrekson 2019; Foss 1997; Foss, Foss, and Klein 2007) of: how an entrepreneur in a position of authority can utilize the different knowledge experiences of their employees when employees are in the best position to know their valued contributions?
This study’s objective is to develop a concept of “Entrepreneurial Empowerment” (EE) to address this internal Hayekian knowledge problem. Leadership research has widely recognized that employees are an important source of ideas and inspirations (Argyris 1998, Foss, Foss, and Klein 2007; Gagne and Edward 2005; Govindarajan and Srikanth 2013; Lee and Koh 2001; Lee, Willis, and Tian 2018; Rigtering, Weitzel, and Muehlfeld 2019). The task of the leader, then, is to empower employees to realize their skills and talents to achieve the organization’s mission and goals (Argyris 1998; Cowen and Parker 1997; Foss, Foss, and Klein 2007; Lee and Koh 2001; Lee, Willis, and Tian 2018). Drawing on this leadership premise, this article develops the concept of entrepreneurial empowerment (EE). EE involves a leadership task of organizing a firm’s internal decision-making process in which employees are delegated a decision-making authority that advances the entrepreneur’s mission. Specifically, EE has structural and psychological dimensions that empower employees to utilize their knowledge of particular circumstances of time and place to solve the internal Hayekian knowledge problem. By solving this problem, EE offers opportunities for the entrepreneurial leader to adapt to and innovate using the knowledge experiences of their employees in ways that cannot be achieved through centralized direction. Propositions surrounding this EE concept are offered. One major contribution of the concept of EE is that the entrepreneurial leader offers an internal organization that empowers employees to solve an internal Hayekian knowledge problem and thus advances an entrepreneur’s mission or goals. As result, this study offers a theory of internal organization that opens up the “black box” of Austrian economics (Foss and Klein, 2012 70).
I. UNITS OF ANALYSIS, DEFINITIONS AND ASSUMPTIONS
Before developing this study’s conceptual model, it is important to outline its definitions, assumptions, and units of analysis. According to leadership research, empowerment is defined by an “increased individual motivation at work through the delegation of authority to the lowest level in an organization where a competent decision can be made” (Seibert, Silver, and Randolph 2004, 332). As entrepreneurs often hold positions of leadership, an entrepreneur’s leadership involves the power to delegate authority to the lower levels of their decision hierarchy (e.g., Cowen and Parker 1996; Foss, Foss, and Klein 2007; Shamir, House, and Arthur 1993; Witt 1998). In addition, this leadership also involves an ability to motivate and shape employees’ behavior and attitudes (Ashford and Sitkin 2019; Shamir, House, and Arthur 1993; Witt 1998), as well as empowering the psychological states or intrinsic motivations of their employees (Lee and Koh 2001; Lee, Willis, and Tian 2018). With these distinctions, entrepreneurial leadership is defined by structural and psychological dimensions that involve empowering employees through a delegation of authority to all levels of the decision hierarchy and an ability to appeal to employees’ intrinsic motivations. This definition assumes that employees’ empowerment is “influenced or caused” by an entrepreneur’s leadership. This assumption is consistent with Lee and Koh (2001), in which empowerment is understood as the “behavior of a supervisor who empowers his/her subordinates” (685). With this assumption, the unit of analysis is focused on the structural and psychological relationships that exist between the entrepreneurial leader and their employees (Lee and Koh 2001). Specifically, this study focuses on the leadership of senior members and not supervisory managers, because leadership studies find that hierarchically organized businesses are subject to social learning processes in which a leader’s actions can have a “cascading effect” that impacts the lowest-level employees of their decision hierarchy (Liu, Liao, and Loi 2012; Shamir, House and Arthur 1993; Witt 1998).
Empowerment and Hayek’s Libertarian View of Markets
Although the concept of empowerment is commonly explained in terms of a leadership function (e.g., Lee and Koh 2001, Spreitzer 2008), empowerment also shares a similar political economic orientation to the libertarian tenets of F. A. Hayek (1945, 1952). As in Hayek (1945), empowerment is a political exercise that rejects the “politics in command” of centrally planned/socialist economies (Mohanty 1995, 1434). Empowerment involves granting freedom and equality by transferring power from an upper level agency, such as a central planner or authority, to people below (Mohanty 1995). This empowerment involves affirming an individual’s freedoms by strengthening their capacity for self-governance, autonomy and self-determination and is an important economic and political goal of Western societies (Mohanty 1995). Similarly, Hayek’s notion of “true libertarianism” is founded on a political economic philosophy that celebrates the benefits of individual choice and freedom. This libertarianism appeals to the collective powers of a decentralized decision-making process, as Hayek (1952) shows:
many of the greatest things man has achieved are not the result of consciously directed thought, and still less the product of deliberately coordinated effort of many individuals, but of a process in which the individual plays a part which he can never fully understand. They are greater than any individual precisely because they result from the combination of knowledge more extensive than single mind can master. (84)
Although empowerment shares a similar political-economic orientation to Hayek’s true libertarianism, their motivations for rejecting the powers of a central authority differ. Empowerment rejects the “politics in command,” because of the corruptive tendencies of government (Mohanty 1995). Hayek’s true libertarianism (1945) rejects central planning on grounds of its limited ability to process decentralized information (see also Klein 1996). Hayek (1945) argued that the allocation of societal resources requires centralizing dispersed knowledge experiences that cannot be fully known by a central authority. This dispersed knowledge is held by the “man on the spot,” consisting of workers or employees. Each employee has a knowledge of the particular “circumstances of time and place,” or more simply put, knowledge of the particulars. This knowledge consists of the particular work challenges and local work conditions faced by an employee. For instance, a real estate employee’s ability to develop their clientele is dependent on their unique understandings of the amenities in a neighborhood (i.e., quality of schools, relative affluence of homeowners, crime rates, general history of the neighborhood, etc.). The man on the spot/employee is better suited to utilizing this knowledge of the particulars than a centrally planned actor, because the man on the spot is most familiar with the unique circumstances of their job (Hayek 1945). As a result, Hayek (1945) argued that the chief economic problem is not concerned with how a central planner can allocate the scarce resources of society, but rather a knowledge problem “of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know” (520).
II. ALERT ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND A SOLUTION TO HAYEK’S KNOWLEDGE PROBLEM
In sharing Hayek’s (1945) commitments to freedom and liberty, Kirzner’s (1979) concept of alertness offered a mechanism key to solving the Hayekian knowledge problem (Foss and Klein 2016). Alertness is defined as “an attitude of receptiveness to available, but hitherto overlooked, opportunities” (Yu 2001, 51). This receptiveness involves a psychological predisposition for discovering price arbitrage opportunities not seen by others (Kirzner 1979). Alertness involves discovering price arbitrage opportunities where the entrepreneur assembles their factors of production at a price that is less than the prices received from the sale of their products / services; however, it does not entail a deliberate search (Kirzner 1979, 2019; Yu 2001). Deliberate search involves a commitment of resources (Kirzner 2019) in which the “agents already know enough of the territory that they know what kind of information they want and where to acquire such information” (Yu 2001 51). Yet Tony Fu-Lai Yu (2001) argued that agents search because they are dissatisfied with their current information. This dissatisfaction motivates a search for better knowledge involving the asymmetric knowledge experiences of the entrepreneur (Shane and Venkataraman 2001, Yu 2001). As employees’ knowledge of the particulars are distributed across an organization’s factors of production, an entrepreneur has an asymmetric knowledge that enables the entrepreneur to assemble these distributed experiences at a total price or cost that is less than their value uses (i.e., prices of the products or services received). Specifically, the task facing the alert entrepreneur is to draw on their asymmetric knowledge experiences in discovering those wage rates that will not only incentivize employees to utilize their knowledge of the particulars, but to also discover a wage rate that is less than the prices of their sold products or services. Hence, through this alert discovery of arbitrage opportunities, the entrepreneur engages in a nondeliberate search in which employees’ knowledge of the particulars is brought into use by the price system to solve the Hayekian knowledge problem.
Internal Hayekian Knowledge Problem
Yet in spite of Kirzner’s (1979) contributions to solving the Hayekian knowledge problem, the entrepreneur faces a distinct “internal Hayekian knowledge problem” (Elert and Henrekson 2019; Foss 1997). This internal Hayekian knowledge problem involves a use of knowledge in which employees’ knowledge of the particulars cannot be centralized under the direction of an entrepreneur’s authority (see also Cowen and Parker 1997; Elert and Henrekson 2019; Shane 2000). According to Hayek (1945), employees’ knowledge of the particulars cannot be centralized because this centralization requires aggregating an employee’s knowledge of the particulars in which differences in their local work conditions and special circumstances would be abstracted away. Due to the distributed nature of an employee’s knowledge of the particulars, this knowledge thereby cannot be conveyed to a central authority (Hayek 1945, 524). Since entrepreneurs are also tasked with allocating their firm’s factors of production (e.g., Klein 1996; Bylund 2016), this inability to centralize their employee’s knowledge of the particulars renders the entrepreneur unable to allocate their factors of production—employees—to their most valued uses. As result, unlike the traditional Hayekian knowledge problem, the internal Hayekian knowledge problem raises a distinct firm-level problem, because the challenges surrounding the centralization of a firm’s distributed knowledge impact a firm’s internal allocation of resources.
The internal Hayekian knowledge problem is closely tied to Ludwig von Mises’s economic calculation problem, and both can be used to elaborate on this firm-level distinction. According to Mises, a firm is tasked with an economic calculation problem of allocating a firm’s resources or factors of production that would satisfy the needs of its consumers (Foss and Klein 2010; Klein 1996). This allocation requires that the entrepreneur understand current factor prices as well as the anticipated prices of consumer goods sold (Foss and Klein 2010). An understanding of these current factor prices is critical, because in the absence of these factor prices, the entrepreneur cannot allocate their factor inputs into meeting the firm’s consumer needs (Klein 1996). Mises has used this economic calculation problem to challenge centrally planned governments, because the absence of property rights over factors of production limits a firm’s ability to discover the prices of their factor inputs (Klein 1996). In the absence of these factor prices, socialistic and, more generally speaking, centralized planned organizations, cannot offer an allocation of capital that solves the economic calculation problem (Bylund 2016; Klein 1996; Foss and Klein 2010). The internal Hayekian knowledge problem parallels the criticisms raised by Mises’s economic calculation problem. According to Hayek (1945), the distributed nature of an employee’s knowledge renders such knowledge
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