Redefining Empowerment, Stress, and Hybrid Leadership in Global Organizations

In my clinical and consulting psychology practice, as well as my work with global organizations in five continents and their respective cultures, I have identified operating variables that I believe are essential for sustainable productivity and wellness in the workplace. I argue that, because these essential variables are misunderstood and vaguely defined, businesses continue to invest a substantial percentage of their revenues and resources to improve their productivity and wellness with fragmented models that lack sustainable results.

The three constructs that I intend to clarify and provide functional alternatives are:

1. The dynamics of empowerment
2. The conditions for harmful as well as benign stress
3. The hidden cultural components of hybrid leadership

Empowerment has little to do with control or power over others. The model of empowerment I propose is the first, worldwide, to apply combined principles of cultural neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and cultural anthropology to business organizations. I define empowerment as the degree of access to the internal and external resources required to master a task with maximum effectiveness in productivity and wellness. What I call primary empowerment (E1) encompasses the operational question and the internal resources that define its domain: What can I do for myself that no one can do for me? Secondary empowerment (E2) is the other domain considered only after all the E1 possibilities have been exhausted. The E2 components are defined by the following question: What can others do for me that I can't do for myself? In other words, when a challenge arises, the answers that are generated by the E1 and E2 questions define their respective resources needed to effectively resolve the challenge. While E1 and E2 are the operational core of my model of empowerment, their effectiveness can only be maximized if the resources are made available to implement the tasks after the operational questions have been asked.

Research in PNI has consistently demonstrated that when a challenge arises without having access to the necessary resources, there is a deregulating effect manifested as an under-reactive immune response and over-reactive nervous and endocrine functions. When the deregulation of these two biological systems remain chronic (i.e. a state of sustained helplessness) it can trigger negative stress-related health challenges such as hypertension, gastrointestinal disturbances, sleep disorders and other conditions that contribute to the high costs of treating chronic illnesses in the US (over 1 trillion dollars annually).

Stress is an interpretation of an event that challenges an individual. One of the myths perpetuated about stress is that it should be avoided and that it is the main culprit in chronic illnesses in the workplace. I propose that being a cultural interpretation, stress is not inherently benign or malignant. It is the cultural context and the degree of empowerment vs. helplessness; the level of meaning of the task; and the commensurate periods of recovery time allotted; that transforms stress into a positive or harmful condition. It is not difficult to conclude that, given the dynamics of stress defined here, what leads to chronic illnesses and their consequent reduced productivity, is an organizational model that gives responsibilities without commensurate authority, jobs without meaning, and goals based on productivity without considering wellness variables as inseparable components when setting objectives.

Corporate executives are examples of how negative stress affects productivity and wellness, whereas orchestra conductors are not affected by the positive stress (empowerment) inherent in their challenging jobs. Orchestra conductors have the highest incidence of longevity with good health of most other professions because of the high meaning and access to resources inherent in their jobs.

The peak performance model is another leadership construct that is counterproductive in the workplace. While peak performance training principles are highly effective for world-class athletes, their psychoneuroimmunological consequences are not considered when applying them to the business organizations. Peak performance, by definition, is not sustainable: it creates a state of hyper-alarm that does not modulate well the recovery time needed for the immune system to be functional in the workplace. It is also apparent that world-class athletes have relatively short careers and significantly short longevity.

The third construct that I redefine is hybrid leadership. The term is commonly understood as taking the best of male and female leadership styles, or combining the best management principles from successful leaders. Although these considerations may be workable in some settings, they are not sufficient when applied to global organizations because of their inherent mono-cultural assumptions. Considering that the concept of leadership has different cultural meanings in the areas of authority, incentives, bonding, meritocracy vs. gerontocracy, and other variables, empowered hybrid leadership entails incorporating the best of cultures where business is conducted.

Additionally, it is important to illustrate the difference between acculturation and trans-culturation when addressing the components of empowered hybrid leadership. While acculturation entails one culture engulfing another, trans-culturation merges the best qualities of two cultures to facilitate a new identity of mutual benefits. Many major corporations have paid a substantial price for not recognizing the operational difference between imposing vs. coauthoring subcultures when entering new global markets.

Altering behavior requires rewards and punishments based on motivational models, whereas shifting operative consciousness relies on inspiring employees to identify their unique excellence, and on giving them the necessary resources to work at their highest level of task-meaning and creativity. Behavior is an effect of operative consciousness: a mindset superimposed on the environment to make sense based on accumulated cultural history. Although an operational consciousness may be dysfunctional, the cultural variables that shaped it are so insidious that the deleterious behaviors generated may remain elusive and disjointed.

The Empowerment principles proposed here, are the first, worldwide, to apply combined principles of neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology and cultural anthropology to business organizations. Rather than viewing wellness and productivity as separate components externally controlled by incentives, we need to address them as an inseparable fabric internally controlled by the values communicated within an organizational culture.

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