When attempting to understand how organizational theorists have attempted to define employee empowerment, two kinds of empowerment come into the picture.
First is structural empowerment associated with the delegation of power by managers to employees.
The second is psychological empowerment-based primarily on self-determination and intrinsic value. Most definitions of empowerment refer to some aspect of control over decision making, control over work processes.
Some chose to define it using the idea of ‘job enrichment’ and ‘participative management’ (Lawler et al., 1992; Cummings and Worley, 1997). Another author aptly states that empowerment is, ‘easy to define in its absence—alienation, powerlessness, helplessness but difficult to define positively because it ‘takes on a different form in different people and contexts’ (Zimmerman, 1990).
From being an employee seeking empowerment to being worthy of it: Thomas and Velthouse (1990) argued that psychological empowerment and increased intrinsic task motivation are manifested in a set of four cognitions, namely meaning, competence, self-determination, and impact. Merely desiring to have more autonomy and control over decision making in your work is not enough. An employee, especially a new entrant in a company, must prove himself worthy of it by his competence and performance.
The best way of achieving one’s personal and professional goals is to strengthen the linkage between effort and performance. The first step forward to achieving this is by opting for a job where the person feels that the personality- job fit can be maximized. This will maximize the ‘meaning’ dimension of psychological empowerment that involves a fit between the requirements of a work role and beliefs, values, and behaviors (Brief & Nord, 1990). The second is to continuously invest in seeking knowledge, upgrading skills, and staying updated with the latest developments in one’s field. This will strengthen self-belief in one’s capability to perform activities with the requisite skills termed as ‘competence’ and ‘self-efficacy’ (Gist, 1987), a critical component of psychological empowerment.
‘Self- determination’ which is an individual’s sense of having a choice in initiating and regulating actions (Deci, Connell, & Ryan,1989), and ‘impact’ that is the degree to which an individual can influence strategic, administrative, or operating outcomes at work (Ashforth, 1989) significantly influence an employee’s sense of empowerment.
For this, it is very important that the organization provides access to information to employees to enable robust decision making. Meanwhile, the employee striving for workplace empowerment should not only demonstrate initiative but focus on developing those skills that are needed to carry out the additional responsibilities and earn the confidence of the manager by exhibiting personal mastery.
Leaders wisdom on when whom and how much to empower employees: Leaders try to empower their employees by delegating authority, sharing information, involving them in decision-making, and asking for their input. Allan et al. (2018) conducted a study exploring ‘when empowering employees to work and when it doesn’t’. They examined the results of
105 studies which included data from more than 30,000 employees from 30 countries. The analysis revealed that empowering leaders are much more effective at influencing employee creativity and citizenship behavior. Also, by empowering their employees, these leaders are more likely to be trusted by their subordinates, and empowered employees are more likely to be powerful, confident individuals committed to meaningful goals.
However, results also suggested that empowering leadership can create additional stress that may hurt employees’ routine performance as factors like ‘trust’ and ‘experience’ can affect how the leaders’ behaviors is perceived by employees.
Here comes the leader’s wisdom to decide how much power and autonomy to give to the employees. The leader can begin with seeking employees input and creating a favorable work environment where employees can engage in dialogue and discussion related to their work.
A leader should aim at creating a safe space where the employees can freely discuss the ongoing. projects, their needs, obstacles, opportunities and anything critical to their work. This will not only provide opportunities of professional growth to employees but also give closer and factual insight to the leader when confronted with doubts related to-whom to empower when to empower and how much to empower.
Providing employees with a voice and listening to it too: Every successful organization aims at attracting the best talent, enhancing employee engagement and productivity, improving retention and building brand value.
This calls for paying close attention to employee sentiments. Workplaces that value their people assets are optimizing the use of technology (Voe) to capture the employee’s sentiments. Organizations are leveraging technology to not only cut costs and get customer feedback but to gain useful insights into factors critical to workplace performance, desires, expectations, positive and hindering forces.
To better understand what companies are doing in the area of employee listening and the extent to which employees are willing to participate, IBM analyzed data from the 2015 IBM Smarter Workforce Institute Work Trends Survey- a broad-based survey of over 24,000 employees from 23 countries, a cross-section of industries and job functions, and thousands of companies. They also conducted interviews with 12 organizations that had improved their listening capabilities.
The research revealed that listening programs helped employees feel more engaged and were associated with positive business results. Organizations that were using multiple listening methods reported higher ratings for organizational performance and reputation. 83% of surveyed employees said they would participate in an employee listening program. Only 62% of Baby Boomers surveyed believe management will act on their input, compared to 78% of Millennials. HR practitioners who use multiple listening methods rated their organizational performance and reputation 24% higher than those who do not. Gartner, a global research and advisory firm in its report published in October 2019 had noted VoE as one of the four key trends in emerging human capital technologies. The report also predicts that by 2022, 35% of organizations will utilize conversational user experience and natural language processing interactions in their talent acquisition. There is a sharp rise in VoE technologies as companies begin to appreciate that employee voice matters. However, when implementing voice-of-the-employee mechanisms, companies should remember that- ‘don’t only provide a voice to your employees but listen to them too’.
This implies that when opting for any VoE technology, the organization must invest in a meticulous investigation to see how well it aligns with their business strategy. The objective of listening to employee voice should go beyond mapping employee sentiments and inspiring participation to uprooting bottlenecks to employee satisfaction and productivity and lead to appropriate follow up actions. Competent and empowered employees who feel their feedback is heard can be an excellent resource for optimum resource utilization, cost minimization, and promoting innovation.
Research by Seibert et al.(2011) published in the journal of applied psychology indicated that contextual antecedent constructs like perceived high-performance managerial practices, socio-political support, leadership, and work characteristics are strongly related to empowerment. Employee empowerment has been associated with better job performance, job satisfaction, and commitment to the organization.
This gives enough impetus to strive towards enriching employee experience by considering employee empowerment as a process of continuous improvement; to enhance employee competence and self-efficacy, identify and remove organizational practices that induce powerlessness and maybe work on structural and systemic changes that need modification.
1- Ashforth.B.E (1989). The experience of powerlessness in organizations. Organization behavior and human decision processes. 43, 207-242
2- Allan Lee, Sara W& Amy Wei Tan (2018). When Empowering Employees Works, and When It Doesn’t. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/03/when-empowering-employees-works-and-when-it-doesnt
3- Brief P.A & Nord W.R(1990). Meanings of occupational work: A collection of essays. Lexinton Books, Lexinton, MA. Cummings & Worley(1997). Organization Development and change. Cincinnati: South WesternCollegePublishing.
About the Author.
Dr. Farah Naqvi is an academician, writer, corporate trainer, and HRD consultant. Currently, she is associated with Gulf Centre for University Education, Kuwait. In her academic & training career, she has worked with premier institutes like the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), IBA Bangalore, Centre for Organization Development Hyderabad (COD), ICFAI Hyderabad where she pursued her research, teaching, and training pursuits. She has to her credit many Research Articles published in international refereed journals.