Empowerment (Encyclopedia of Management)
A primary goal of employee empowerment is to give workers a greater voice in decisions about work-related matters. Their decision-making authority can range from offering suggestions to exercising veto power over management decisions. Although the range of decisions that employees may be involved in depends on the organization, possible areas include: how jobs are to be performed, working conditions, company policies, work hours, peer review, and how supervisors are evaluated.
Many experts believe that organizations can improve productivity through employee empowerment. This occurs in one of two main ways. First, empowerment can strengthen motivation by providing employees with the opportunity to attain intrinsic rewards from their work, such as a greater sense of accomplishment and a feeling of importance. In some cases, intrinsic rewards such as job satisfaction and a sense of purposeful work can be more powerful than extrinsic rewards such as higher wages or bonuses. Motivated employees clearly tend to put forth more effort than those who are less motivated. The second means by which employee empowerment can increase productivity is through better decisions. Especially when decisions require task-specific knowledge, those on the front line can often better identify problems.
Empowering employees to identify problemsombined with higher-level management involvement in coordinating solutions across departmental boundaries within the firman enhance the overall decision-making process and increase organizational learning. For example, Toyota Motor Company empowers some of its employees to identify and help remedy problems occurring during product assembly. An automobile coming off Toyota's assembly line with a paint defect is seen as an opportunity to delve into the root cause of the defect, as opposed to merely fixing the defect and passing it on to distributors for resale. Solutions resulting from employee involvement tend to have more employee buy-in when it comes to implementation. Because such solutions are generated from the front lines, this further enhances the potential for productivity improvements by reducing the attitude that solutions are "passed down from above."
A number of different human resource management programs are available that grant employee empowerment to some extent. A number of these are discussed in the following sections, including informal participative decision-making programs, job enrichment, continuous improvement, and self-managed work teams.
INFORMAL PARTICIPATIVE DECISION-MAKING PROGRAMS
Informal participative decision-making programs involve managers and subordinates making joint decisions on a daily basis. Employees do not enjoy blanket authority to make all work-related decisions; managers decide just how much decision-making authority employees should have in each instance. The amount of authority varies depending on such situational factors as decision complexity and the importance of employee acceptance of the decision. While it may seem obvious, one key to empowerment is choosing under what conditions to empower employees. Employees should be empowered in situations where they can make decisions that are as good as, or better than, those made by their managers.
One possible problem is that the interests of workers may not align with those of the organization. For example, at one university a department head delegated the task of determining job performance standards to the faculty. Because the faculty believed that it was not in their own best interest to develop challenging standards, the standards they eventually developed were easily attainable. The success of empowerment also often hinges on whether employees want to participate in decision making. Some employees, for instance, have no desire to make work-related decisions. Suggestions for increasing employee participation levels include work situations where:
- All possible solutions are equally effective. For example, consider employee vacation schedules. If one solution is as good as another, employee groups can be empowered to work out the scheduling.
- Managers do not possess sufficient information or expertise to make a quality decision without employee input. Managers should at least consult their employees before a decision is reached to prevent overlooking solutions that may appear obvious to front-line employees, but which may be more evasive for higher-level managers who are unfamiliar with front-line practices.
- Managers do not know exactly what information is needed or how to find it. Again, managers should at least consult their employees before a decision is reached to determine whether employees have the information required to make an effective decision.
- The group's acceptance of or commitment to effective implementation is crucial and the group is unlikely to accept a manager's unilateral decision. If employees' acceptance is crucial, participative decision-making should be used. As alluded to previously, employees tend to accept decisions more willingly if they have had a voice in the decision-making process. One caveat is that the participation should be genuine; managers should not ask for employee input simply to give the appearance of participation. Employees can usually recognize this ploy and, if they do, feelings of distrust will likely develop.
- Employees' goals are aligned with those of management. If employees do not share management's goals, participative decision-making would be inappropriate, because the two parties would be at odds.
Several studies have examined the effects of informal participative decision-making programs. While the results have been mixed and thus cannot be considered definitive, most studies have found that informal participative decision-making programs do, in fact, have a positive impact on productivity.
Sometimes, employees are not motivated because of the way their jobs are designed. For example, consider the job of an assembly-line worker who does nothing but place a screw in a hole as the product passes by on the production line. Such a job provides little opportunity for workers to gain intrinsic rewards. Job enrichment aims to redesign jobs to be more intrinsically rewarding. Certain job characteristics help managers to build enrichment into jobs. These characteristics (summarized in Exhibit 1) include:
- Skill varietyhe various skills needed to perform a given task, where increased skill requirements are associated with increased motivation
- Task identityhe degree to which employees perceive how their job impacts the overall production of a product or service
- Task significancehether the task is meaningful beyond the task itself
- Autonomymployee discretion over how to perform a task
- Feedbacknput from peers and supervisors regarding the quality of an employee's work
When these characteristics are present in a job, employees tend to be more motivated than when these characteristics are not present. However, there is not a "silver bullet" for motivating employees through empowerment; there is considerable variation in the degree to which each of these empowerment factors motivates individuals. On the other hand, it is a mistake to think that because certain individuals do not respond equally to such job designs, overall productivity will not increase as a result of empowerment through proper job design and enrichment. In general, productivity tends to increase despite the inherent variation of specific effects.
Once a job has been identified as needing enrichment, the organization must redesign it to incorporate these characteristics: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback. Some specific job enrichment techniques include:
- Combining tasks. This involves assigning tasks performed by different workers to a single individual. For example, in a furniture factory, rather than working on just one part of the production process, each person could assemble, sand, and stain an entire table or chair. This change would increase skill variety, as well as task identity, as each worker would be responsible for the job from start to finish.
- Establish client relationships. Client relationships could be established by putting the worker in touch with customers. For example, an auto dealership service department could allow its mechanics to discuss service problems directly with customers, rather than going through the service manager. By establishing client relationships, skill variety is increased because workers have a chance to develop interpersonal skills. It also provides them with a chance to do a larger part of the job (task identity), to see how their work impacts customers (task significance), and to have more decision-making authority (autonomy).
- Reduce direct supervision. Workers gain autonomy when they are given responsibility for doing things previously done by supervisors. For instance, clerks could be allowed to check for their own errors or be allowed to order supplies directly.
Many organizations have successfully enriched otherwise dull jobs, thereby empowering employees to have greater control over their work and the decisions affecting them. In addition to increased productivity, empowerment also may lead to improvements in product or service quality, reduced absenteeism rates, and increased employee retention. In situations where enriched jobs become less automated, however, production may become less efficient. Job enrichment would thus be ill-advised in situations where the loss in efficiency cannot be offset by productivity gains stemming from increased motivation. Moreover, employees preferring highly automated, easy jobs are likely to oppose job enrichment efforts.
Companies adopting continuous improvement attempt to build quality into all phases of product or service design, production, and delivery. Often referred to as total quality management, these programs empower workers to trace product or service problems to their root causes and redesign production processes to eliminate them using various problem-solving and statistical techniques. In these situations, empowerment arises from the need to involve employees at nearly all organizational levels in continuous improvement efforts. The use of continuous improvement programs have grown rapidly, built on the successful experiences of numerous companies. Xerox, for example, was able to decrease the number of customer complaints it received by 38 percent after implementing continuous improvement methods, and Motorola reduced the number of defects in its products by 80 percent. Proponents of self-managed work teams claim they succeed because they are customer-focused and promote sound management practices like team-work, continuous learning, and continuous improvement.
SELF-MANAGED WORK TEAMS
Self-managed work teams have the authority to manage themselves. Rather than having managers control their work, self-managed work teams incorporate group norms to regulate activities. They plan, organize, coordinate, and take corrective actions. Some can hire, fire, and discipline team members with little intervention from higher levels of management. In short, self-managed work teams are given responsibilities usually held by managers, but control comes from the concertive influence of the team rather than from more formal means. Not surprisingly, managers' jobs are minimized and group norms are maximized when self-managed work teams are used. Self-managed work teams are not for all organizations; characteristic needed for success include:
- Technical skills. Cross-training, which allows team members to move from job to job within the team, is essential. Thus, team members should receive training in the specific skills that will broaden their personal contributions to the overall effort.
- Interpersonal skills. Team members must communicate effectively, both one-on-one and in groups. Cooperative decision-making within and among teams demands the skills of group problem solving, influencing others, and resolving conflicts. Team members must learn problem-solving skills that assist in zeroing in on problem areas, gathering facts, analyzing causes, generating alternatives, selecting solutions, and other related facets.
- Administrative skills. Self-managed work teams must perform tasks formerly handled by supervisors. The team must learn how to keep records, report procedures, budget, schedule, monitor, and appraise the performance of team members.
Research findings concerning self-managing teams have been largely positive. Proponents claim that self-managed work teams are effective because they empower employees to make decisions that affect their day-to-day business lives. Thus, these teams radically change the way that employees value and think about their jobs. Other benefits associated with self-managed teams include greater flexibility to respond to market changes and competitive pressures.
However, there are a number of drawbacks. As noted previously, self-managed teams are not for every organization. Some may be better served by other ways of empowerment, rather than the dramatic empowerment seen with self-managed teams. Drawbacks can include:
- Rivalry within and across teams
- A shortage of time and skills on the team to deal with conventional management concerns like hiring, training, and resolving interpersonal disputes
- Difficulty appraising employees in the absence of a traditional management figure
In addition to these concerns, one of the most difficult issues companies face with self-directed work teams is deciding how to effectively implement them. A number of obstacles must be overcome. Sometimes, managers are reluctant to relinquish control and employees are reluctant to accept new responsibilities. To prepare team members for self-management, the organization must provide a considerable amount of training. Without proper training, teams are likely to become bogged down permanently in mid-process.
As the previous discussion suggests, empowerment is not a single event or process, but rather takes a variety of forms. The degree of empowerment ranges from asking employees for input to allowing total discretion. Informal participative decision-making programs, job enrichment, continuous improvement, and self-managed work teams are some of the ways that organizations empower employees, giving them more control, but at the same time increasing overall organizational productivity.
Druskat, Vanessa Urch, and Jane V. Wheeler. "How to Lead a Self-Managing Team." MIT Sloan Management Review 45, no. 4 (2004): 652.
Hawley, Casey Fitts. 201 Ways to Turn Any Employee into a Star Performer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Langfred, C.W., and Neta A. Moye. "Effects of Task Autonomy on Performance: An Extended Model Considering Motivational, Informational, and Structural Mechanisms." Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no. 6 (2004): 93446.
Meyer, John P., Thomas E. Becker, and Christian Vandenberghe. "Employee Commitment and Motivation: A Conceptual Analysis and Integrative Model." Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no. 6 (2004): 99198.
Pfeffer, Jeffrey. "How Companies Get Smart." Business 2.0 6, no. 1 (2005): 74.
Seibert, Scott E., Seth R. Silver, and W. Alan Randolph. "Taking Empowerment to the Next Level: A Multiple-Level Model of Empowerment, Performance, and Satisfaction." Academy of Management Journal 47, no. 3 (2004): 33250.
Empowerment (Encyclopedia of Business)
Empowerment in business means knowing how to "humanize" the work environment so management and employees work together to enhance productivity and achieve greater personal and professional success. An empowered company understands and appreciates that the "human factor" can add or subtract from the bottom line. Empowerment is a company-wide commitment to respect all employees as intelligent and responsible human beings.
The benefits of empowerment are many. They include higher levels of employee satisfaction, a sense of shared purpose, and greater collaboration. The overall result for the organization is to deliver enhanced value to the customer.
A 1999 survey by the National Association of Working People examined companies with high levels of employee satisfaction. The survey found that such companies were leaders in work culture attitude and in practices relating to employee empowerment. They permitted genuine control over identifying problems and creating solutions. They gave workers more responsibility for the performance and quality of their jobs. They rewarded workers for exceeding expectations, and they showed appreciation for work that was done. Employees were given flexible work schedules and in some cases allowed to set their own objectives. In addition, these companies typically provided recreational and leisure facilities for employees.
Empowerment is an entire company mind-set for successfully doing business in a global marketplace. Businesses began asking: What exactly is an empowered workplace? And, how do we know when we have achieved an empowered workforce?
Highly successful companies encourage team members to work together for the betterment of the whole company. A commitment to empowerment influences and nurtures individuals to become active participants in the successes and challenges of the entire company. So, empowerment is both an individual and a team effort.
SELF-EMPOWERMENT AND SELF-ESTEEM
An empowered company begins with self-empowerment. Owners and managers cannot empower others to perform their best until they are empowered themselves. Empowered management begins by hiring leaders who possess healthy self-esteem, superior people skills, and the willingness to share expertise to bring out the best in employees. Empowerment is a skill and can be learned. Managers can begin by reading empowering materials; attending seminars and workshops aimed at the "whole person"; taking time to rejuvenate their own mind, body, and spirit; learning to manage time and energy effectively; and participating in empowerment training. Effective management teams must have a firm grasp on the latest business techniques as well as an understanding of the importance of human potential and high self-esteem.
Promoting and maintaining consistently high self-esteem in managers and employees is a vital ingredient to a highly empowered workforce. High self-esteem within the company is achieved by encouraging creativity, individuality, problem solving, and an open and honest exchange of ideas among all the employees in a non-threatening environment. The opposite of an empowered workforce is one riddled with negativity, low morale, and a distrust of management. A unempowered workforce is an unproductive workforce.
Empowerment involves a company-wide program based on promoting well-defined company goals, high morale, fairness, recognition, teamwork, active participation, extensive communication, and a purposeful working environment. Empowerment is a total commitment to doing business in a productive and positive manner.
Managers and workers have the basic need to feel they are contributing and making a difference. Employees who consistently feel enthusiastic about what they are doing, do a good job. An empowered company encourages employees to actively look out for and solve problems. The main benefit to the empowered company is quality improvement. Empowered workers feel responsible for the industry reputation and consumer perception of their company. Empowered employees take pride in their work.
An empowered management team does not manage by iron-fisted control. Successful managers promote an environment of sharing, openness, growth, and reward. The morale and productivity of a workforce are a direct reflection of the attitudes and values of the management team.
Empowerment also requires flexibility. Adaptability is vital to implementing any empowerment program. Employees will quickly lose enthusiasm and interest if a program is inflexible, threatening, or unworkable.
Promoting a sense of importance and fair play is as important to success as any business plan or marketing campaign. Business success begins with each individual in the company, and empowerment begins by empowering everyone who can contribute to the success of the business. If employees have low self-esteem and a bad attitude, the company suffers. Since a company is known by the attitude of its employees, the impression of company competency expressed to the outside world begins with the image displayed by each employee.
Empowerment training benefits everyone in an organization. When employees feel good about themselves, they want to share their enthusiasm by helping the business succeed. An overall positive employee attitude minimizes infighting and back-stabbing and keeps morale consistently high. Empowerment in the workplace involves empowering workers with the skills and self-confidence they need to achieve their personal and professional best.
An empowered company begins with empowered management, so empowerment training should begin at the top. Lasting empowerment is a process of building trusting relationships and partnerships between management, employees, and customers.
Education, training, and positive reinforcement are critical to the success of any empowerment program. Part of building trust between employees and management is giving workers the tools they need to make an empowerment program successful. An effective empowerment program requires a sincere commitment to learn and assimilate new professional, personal, and technical skills. Empowerment includes self-development opportunities such as seminars and tape programs. A library of empowering resources is a valuable and positive resource that a company should not overlook.
WORK TEAMS AND A SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Valuing the opinions and ideas of every employee is another foundation of empowerment. Workers should be encouraged to fine-tune problem-solving skills. Learning to problem-solve often involves trial and error. Patience and encouragement by management will produce a quality-conscious, self-sufficient workforce.
Being a valued part of work teams is what empowerment is all about. Management and employees must work together to develop a common vision and compatible goals. Employees at all levels want to feel respected and valued. Working as a team to make the company's vision a reality encourages worker involvement and mutual respect and trust.
Employees want clear, consistent goals and direction. In today's competitive business world, most companies offer decent wages and working conditions. An empowered company adds trust, respect, education, and positive direction to their list of benefits. They reward a job well done by providing for intellectual and emotional growth. They know how to make all the employees part of the company's successes, as well as partners in facing its challenges.
Empowered companies have a strong corporate sense of community. A feeling of belonging to a corporate community is important. The lines of communication must be well defined and open. Extensive and honest communication may even help employees do their job better. Fear of the unknown can be demoralizing and destructive.
An empowered environment encourages the best from all the team members. By providing empowerment opportunities, the company in return has a right to expect the employees to work smart and commit themselves to bettering their jobs and themselves. No one in an empowered company should be unproductive. When people find their work rewarding, they work harder and smarter. Empowerment encourages job satisfaction to become a top priority.
Empowerment does not happen overnight. It takes time to see the results of empowerment training. A belief that employees want to do a good job is essential. Working with individuals to set professional goals will enhance the empowerment process. People will generally set higher goals for themselves than management would set for them. Empowerment involves management taking a proactive approach toward soliciting suggestions and ideas. Workers have many valuable time-management and money-saving ideas. Most people are willing to share their observations and thoughts if they feel safe enough to do so. Management must nurture an environment in which employees are encouraged to use their own judgment and common sense.
An empowered environment is reflected in the overall attitude, production level, customer satisfaction, and profitability of a company. Top management has the responsibility of setting the tone for lasting empowerment. Empowerment is more than a buzz-word, it is a commitment to the entire company working together as a team. Management and employees must open the lines of communication to efficiently and effectively empower one another to greater success. Empowerment in business is built on a trusting, competent relationship between management and employees and between employees and customers.
SEE ALSO: Teams; Training and Development
[Sharon A. Michaels,
updated by David P Bianco]
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Wajsman, Myma, and Greg Lewis. "Path to Empowerment," CA Magazine, January-February 1999.