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 problems—combined with higher-level management involvement in coordinating solutions across departmental boundaries within the firm—can 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 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:
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:
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:
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 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:
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:
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 f\or 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.
Lawrence S. Kleiman
Revised by Scott B. Droege
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