By: Sanjay T. Menon
Louisiana State University Shreveport
The word “empowerment” can mean different things to different people. It can mean the act of empowering, such as delegation or giving employees the authority to make decisions. It can mean the process of empowering, for example, reducing red tape and giving employees the needed resources to do their work as they think it needs to be done. It can also mean making employees feel empowered, for example, by providing opportunities for employees to contribute ideas and participate in decision making. It is therefore not surprising that different authors have different ideas and suggestions regarding empowerment.
From a practical standpoint, trying to empower employees does not automatically result in an empowered workforce. Regardless of the definition of empowerment or the methods used, the beneficial effects of empowerment can only be realized if the employee actually experiences empowerment or feels empowered. This is particularly true if the organization or individual managers merely pay lip service to empowerment. They may say that they are delegating but may not actually do so or they may nullify the empowering effect by saying “You are in charge; just keep me informed before you make any major decisions”. Or, there might be organizational conditions, such as a rigid bureaucracy, that prevent employees from feeling empowered despite the best intentions of the manager. So, to be truly empowered, the employee should be in a psychological state of empowerment. Therefore, managers should focus on actions that result in the psychological empowerment of employees.
There are three basic dimensions underlying the psychological experience of empowerment. The first one is that of perceived control. Employees who are truly empowered feel that they are in control of their work and work environment. When employees have the power to make significant decisions regarding their work, if they have the needed resources, and if they can make changes to make their work more efficient, they feel empowered. The second major cognition associated with psychological empowerment is that of perceived competence. Empowered employees feel confident that they are capable of successfully completing their tasks. They feel they have the necessary skills and training to accomplish their goals. The third aspect of psychological empowerment is goal internalization. Employees who have internalized the goals of the organization are energized by the prospect of achieving the goals. They are enthusiastic about accomplishing the mission of the organization. They have bought in to the vision and are motivated by it.
Thus, an empowered employee feels in control of his work and work environment, feels competent and enabled with regard to his work, and has internalized the goals of the organization. Empowerment efforts will bear fruit only if they result in empowered employees. Therefore, when managers design their empowerment initiatives, they should ensure a positive impact on all three underlying psychological dimensions. For example, it is not enough to delegate authority and responsibility. The manager should also make sure that the employee has the necessary skills and support to complete the task. Otherwise, the employee will not experience perceived competence and the increased responsibility will result in anxiety and stress, rather than empowerment. The manager should also make it a point to explain not only the purpose of the current assignment but also how it fits into the overall mission and vision of the organization. He should explain the short term and long term benefits of desirable behaviors for the employee, the unit, and the organization as a whole. This approach will help employees internalize the goals of the organization and work enthusiastically toward accomplishing them.
Over the years, organizational researchers and consultants have identified numerous empowering actions and techniques. Despite the wide variety of approaches, these techniques can be readily understood by looking at the empowerment dimension that they seek to affect. Traditionally, empowerment has been associated with techniques such as delegation where the manager transfers decision making authority to the employee. Another traditional approach has been the technique of participative decision making, where employees are involved in major decisions that affect their work, unit, and the organization as a whole. Employee participation can be informal within a particular unit or more formal as in the case of work councils, quality circles, quality management teams, and joint labor-management committees. With regard to working conditions, empowering techniques include flex time, work- at- home arrangements, and compressed work weeks. All these traditional approaches are based on increasing the worker’s experience of perceived control.
More modern approaches have focused on the dimensions of perceived competence and goal internalization. Programs such as cross-training, mandatory annual training, skill-based pay, job rotation, job shadowing, career management, talent management, and mentorship, all serve to increase employee feelings of competence. Managers can also enhance the self-efficacy of employees by providing task feedback, expressing confidence in their employees’ capabilities, and by recognizing and celebrating their successes. In recent years, greater attention has been paid to practices such as inspirational leadership, visionary leadership, charismatic leadership, and more generally, transformational leadership. A strong organizational culture shared by committed employees has also been proposed as a source of competitive advantage. All these latter techniques empower by enhancing the goal internalization of employees.
In general, in most work settings, it is preferable to assign responsibility for a particular work or business outcome rather than for specific decisions. Employees should be clear about what is expected, as well as what they can and cannot do on their own. Managers should provide employees with the information, equipment, and other resources needed to make informed decisions and successfully accomplish tasks. They should provide ongoing feedback accompanied by recognition and rewards as appropriate. It is important that all employees understand the mission and vision of the organization and how the work of the unit fits into the overall goals of the organization.
Empowerment is often easier said than done. The main sources of difficulty in successfully implementing empowering decisions are the manager, the employee, organizational systems, and culture. Many managers and supervisors feel that power is a finite commodity and that sharing power and decision making automatically means that they become less powerful. They may also fear becoming irrelevant or redundant if decisions they previously made are now made by subordinates. This is particularly true of managers who are insecure to begin with. To minimize the possible resistance from immediate supervisors and managers, it is a good idea to first focus on the affected supervisors and managers before embarking on the empowerment initiative. They have to first buy into the logic and necessity of the program. They have to see the benefits to themselves and the organization. They have to understand that by reducing their day to day responsibilities, they will have more time for special projects, planning, and other strategic activity. If the supervisors and managers are not on board, there is a danger that they will resist or work against the empowerment initiative.
Just as supervisors and managers need to be ready to empower their subordinates, the employees must also be “ready” to be empowered. If attention is not paid to this issue, empowerment efforts can easily backfire. Empowerment often requires employees to use skills beyond technical expertise, such as decision making with incomplete information, making judgment calls, negotiating, and priority setting. Empowerment usually introduces some uncertainty and ambiguity as employees are now required to evaluate information which is often incomplete and make judgment calls, something previously done by the manager. If an employee does not possess these abilities or is not trained in these skills, then he or she can become frustrated rather than empowered. If the employee does not possess the skill set and capabilities to deal with the increased responsibility, then he or she will not experience perceived competence and control. The employee may instead experience anxiety and stress as the demands of the situation exceed his/her coping capacity. Many employees need to be coached and developed to assume more responsibility.
One must also keep in mind that not all employees are interested in being empowered. Some employees may not want the additional responsibility and some may not be willing to take on additional responsibility without additional compensation. The latter may think the empowerment initiative is nothing more than a cynical ploy by management to get employees to do more work. Some workers, especially those in unions, may worry that management may be co-opting them by blurring the line between management and workers. Many of these issues can be minimized when employees buy in to the vision of the organization and they internalize the goals. Providing the required training and support will help enhance feelings of competence and control.
Managers should also ensure that organizational systems, processes, and general work environment help rather than hinder empowerment efforts. First, there should not be outstanding issues in the work context that are a source of concern to the employees. For example, a climate of ignoring complaints of unsafe working conditions or unresolved disputes about pay and benefits will reduce employees’ interest in empowerment efforts. Excessive bureaucracy can also frustrate newly empowered employees when they take initiative or try creative solutions. Where possible, reward systems should encourage the desired behavior rather than discourage it. Further, if the consequences for failure are severe, employees will be reluctant to exercise their discretion and take risks or try unorthodox approaches.
The organizational culture and the larger societal culture should be compatible with empowerment. If the organizational culture is very authoritarian or is a very high pressure environment for competitive reasons, then empowerment may be difficult. If the societal culture considers large power differences between managers and employees to be normal, then empowerment could be resisted by both managers and employees. If the culture prefers stability and order to initiative and risk-taking, then the uncertainty and ambiguity that comes with empowerment may induce anxiety and dissatisfaction. If the culture is more collectivistic than individualistic, then it may be more effective to empower teams or work groups rather than individuals.
Lastly, both managers and employees must realize that there are realistic limits to empowerment. Decision making cannot be endlessly delegated downward beyond the optimum level where the decision should be made; so managers must still make the decisions that are beyond the employees’ scope and capability. Employees must also be clear on the limits of their discretion and should know when to approach their manager for guidance.♦
Conger, J.A. & Kanungo, R.N. (1988). The empowerment process: Integrating theory and practice. Academy of Management Review, 13, 471-482.
Kotter, J. P. & Cohen, D. S. (2002). Creative ways to empower action to change the organization: Cases in point. Journal of Organizational Excellence, Winter 2002, p. 73 – 82.
Menon, S.T. (2001). Employee Empowerment: An Integrative Psychological Approach. Applied Psychology– An International Review, 50(1),153-180.
Randolf, W. A. & Sashkin, M. (2002). Can Organizational Empowerment Work in Multinational Settings? The Academy of Management Executive (1993), Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 102-115.
Sagie, A. & Koslowsky, M. (2000). Participation and Empowerment in Organizations: Modeling, Effectiveness, and Applications. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage Publications.
Sanjay T. Menon is Associate Professor of Management and India Studies Super Professor at Louisiana State University Shreveport. He holds a PhD. in Organizational Behavior from McGill University, Canada.
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