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The 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 effective use of employee empowerment can allow organizations to increase productivity. This occurs in two 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. Second, employee empowerment can increase productivity through encouraging better decision-making skills. Especially when decisions require task-specific knowledge, those on the front line can often better identify problems, particularly when they are empowered to do so.

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 with these types of programs 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

Exhibit 1 Job Characteristics That Enhance Intrinsic Motivation

  1. Skill Variety: The degree to which a job requires a variety of different activities to carry out the work. A job has high skill variety if it requires a number of different skills and talents.
  2. Task Identity: The degree to which a job requires completion of the whole and identifiable piece of work. A job has high task identity if the worker does the job from the beginning to end with a visible outcome.
  3. Task Significance: The degree to which the job has a substantial impact on the lives of other people, whether these people are in the immediate organization or in the world at large. A job has a task significance if people benefit greatly from results of the job.
  4. Autonomy: The degree to which the job provides the workers with autonomy. A job has high autonomy if workers are given substantial freedom, independence, and discretion in scheduling the work and determining the procedures to be used in carrying it out.
  5. Job Feedback: The degree to which the job provides the worker with knowledge of results. A job has high job feedback if carrying out the work activities required by the job provides the individual with direct and clear information about the effectiveness of his or her performance.
  • Skill variety. The various skills needed to perform a given task, where increased skill requirements are associated with increased motivation.
  • Task identity. The degree to which employees perceive how their job impacts the overall production of a product or service.
  • Task significance. Whether the task is meaningful beyond the task itself.
  • Autonomy. Employee discretion over how to perform a task.
  • Feedback. Input 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 that 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:

  • Combine 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.

A variation of this type of employee empowerment is illustrated by freight transportation company Con-way Inc. In May 2008, Con-way launched a driver career choice program, in which drivers were informed of open positions at sister companies before the jobs were officially advertised to the public. Thus the employee experience was enriched via a reduction of direct supervision, i.e., access to information that would have normally been handled solely by the management. While this program benefited the drivers by giving them greater autonomy to direct their careers, it also benefited the management by automatically creating a pool of experienced job candidates.

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 teamwork, 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 concerted 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; characteristics 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.

SEE ALSO Continuous Improvement; Human Resource Management; Quality and Total Quality Management; Teams and Teamwork


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