Employee empowerment is providing employees with responsibility and decision-making powers, so that they apply discretion when needed, to improve customer service and enhance organizational effectiveness. The approach seeks to restructure work so the power to make decisions shifts to the individual employee or the work team directly involved in the process or with the customer, and move away from the prevalent bureaucratic structure where responsibility shifts higher and higher up the hierarchy. Employee empowerment bases or the types of power empowerment requires is a combination of autonomy and authority, and job enhancement.
Correct Decision-Making Powers
As an employee, how many times have you encountered frustration by finding your hands tied? From experience or familiarity, you know the obvious solution to the issue at hand. However, rules, regulations and policies prevent you from doing just that while the issue rages, waiting for someone higher up to apply their suggestion.
Without the powers to commit or authorize such actions, most employees in a traditional organization serve only as a sounding board, bringing the issue to the attention of the manager higher up in the echelons of power, with or without his suggestion on what to do. Action, if any comes from the manager who, pressed with many things, may not give the issue the seriousness it deserves. At times, the manager, oblivious to the added insight that a floor level employee may have a different perspective of the issue, makes a decision that far from solving the issue, aggravates it.
Empowerment changes this serious impediment to organizational effectiveness by allowing floor level employees who come in direct contact with the customer to take decisions by applying his mind and judgment, without escalating the matter to higher-ups or being bound by the otherwise restraining rules, regulations, and policies.
Many employers, however, go overboard and make the mistake of giving unbridled powers to employees, to the extent that employees take whatever decision they see fit with scant regards to the restraints otherwise in place. This is a mistake. Effective empowerment requires the employee to remain bound to the rules, regulations and policies, all which exist for a good reason, but with the power to tweak them to the desired effect. A truly empowered employee would also understand the extent to which he can override the systems in place, or when to cross the line.
For instance, a front line employee may decide to replace a defective product straightaway when he is convinced of the genuineness of the demand from the customer’s emotions, even when company policy may state otherwise. But the same employee cannot be expected to have the authority to stop sourcing the similar product from suppliers just because a few customers happen to return the product for defects.
In a similar vein, empowerment is autonomy and decision-making powers are limited to all aspects related to an employee’s job responsibility. An empowered employee working in human resources cannot for instance go in and decide to scrap a marketing project just because the staff involved in the project complains about its ineffectiveness. The same employee, however, can take the initiative to launch a training program that improves organizational communications, which may allow such employees to connect with supervisors better.
For empowerment to work, the employee and the supervisor need to come together and establish clear goals and expectations within agreed-upon boundaries.
Quality not Quantity
The best way to ensure empowerment fails is to load on the empowered employee’s job responsibilities. In the guise of empowerment, many organizations allocate more and more work to the employee, until the employee, overwhelmed and frustrated become a stressed out wreck.
Empowerment is adding depth or quality to what one is doing. For instance, an empowered sales clerk gets the added responsibility of what is otherwise his supervisor’s job, such as ability to offer discounts to a point, ability to add-on gift packing, and more. However, an empowered sales clerk entrusted with the task of billing besides sales is not empowerment, but an attempt by the company to get more for less. Job enrichment works with empowerment. Job enlargement works only when the enlarged work duties contribute to enrichment.
Proper empowerment requires wholesale delegation. For instance, if empowerment results in more drudgework, it balances with the benefits of a committee membership. Selective empowerment where the empowered employee only gets the drudgework does more harm than good.
Key Success Factors
Stephen Covey, the famous management author opines that an empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success. For this to happen, empowered employees need infusion with the right kind of power.
For empowerment to succeed, employees need to be in control of what they are doing, aware of what they are supposed to do, and accountable for their actions. This requires providing employees with the authority to make decisions on day-to-day issues that concern their work domain, and permission to apply their judgments. Such powers, however, requires reinforcement by a culture that:
- Shares information and knowledge openly
- Encourages open communication with regular feedback
- A facilitating leadership style where the leader serves as a guide and resource for the empowered employee
- Involves the employees in strategic planning exercises so they gain insight into the company vision and objectives, and apply such strategic thinking to their work domain and take responsibility for actions.
These traits constitute the employee empowerment bases, and facilitates the types of power empowerment requires. Without the critical insights brought about by such a culture, employees would fail to exercise their judgments properly.
A culture where vindictiveness and witch-hunting thrives, and calling people to account for decisions taken regardless of the circumstances will see that employees simply do not opt to exercise the powers vested with them, and remain in steadfast in their ways.
Empowerment fails without trust. The management not trusting the employee to do what is required, the employee not trusting the management and doubting ulterior motives behind the empowerment, or failing to repose the trust in them all leads to failure.
- Bowen, David, E. & Lawler, Edward III. “The Employee Empowerment Approach to Service.” Retrieved from http://ceo.usc.edu/pdf/G941244.pdf on August 18, 2011.