Employee empowerment is one of those terms that everyone thinks they
understand, but few people really do. What does it mean to be empowered?
Many organizations are interested in empowerment, believing that empowered
workers will be more effective in reaching their goals. My experience as
Practice Manager of a veterinary hospital has led me to many management
seminars. Many speakers recommend that employees be empowered to increase
job satisfaction but they never explain the steps involved to reach empowerment.
I have decided to research this topic to help benefit me in my current
job situation but also to understand what empowerment truly is and how
to achieve it in the work place. This paper will start by defining the
term empowerment, identifying the steps to reach empowerment, include some
examples of empowerment and the results of those examples. The paper will
also mention the benefits of empowerment, which results in, increased employee
satisfaction, increased productivity and increased customer satisfaction.
The common dictionary definition of empowerment is to give official authority or legal power to (Merriam-Webster 408). Although you cannot motivate your team to succeed, you can create a work environment that encourages employees to use their talents, knowledge and experience to better themselves, the culture of empowerment (Opperman 71).
According to Michelle Kaminski, empowerment is defined as a developmental process that promotes an active approach to problem solving, increased political understanding and an increased ability to exercise control in the environment. As people develop through the stages of empowerment, they become more able to analyze issues in context and apply their skills to successfully resolve them. Those in the earlier stages might succeed at only relatively simple problems, while those in later stages are likely to be effective at handling broader, more complex issues (9). When most people refer to employee empowerment, they mean a great deal more than delegation. Ettore’s (1997) definition of empowerment is employees having an autonomous decision-making capability and acting as partners in the business, all with an eye to the bottom line. While many employees understand their contribution to the work at hand, how many know their contribution to the bottom line?
Empowerment is not giving people power but letting that power out. People
already have plenty of power in the wealth of their knowledge and motivation
to do their jobs magnificently (Blanchard 13). Empowerment is a top-down
value driven issue.
Employee empowerment is a process whereby: a culture of empowerment is developed; information - in the form of a shared vision, clear goals, boundaries for decision-making, and the results of efforts and their impact on the whole - is shared; competency - in the form of training and experience - is developed; resources, or the competency to obtain them when needed to be effective in their jobs, are provided; and support - in the form of mentoring, cultural support and encouragement of risk taking - is provided (Fox 7).
Every employer uses employee empowerment to some extent, though it is
often thought of as delegation. No organization of more than one person
can survive without some employee empowerment, providing training and experience
needed to be effective in each employee’s position. Empowerment is a process
of becoming, not a task or end result. It becomes part of the culture of
the organization, a transparent act where nobody within the organization
notices when an act of empowerment is exercised (Fox 7).
The first key in empowering people and organizations is sharing information with everyone in the organization. The sharing of this information lets people understand the current situation in clear terms. It begins to build trust throughout the organization and breaks down traditional hierarchical thinking. It helps people to be more responsible; people without information cannot monitor themselves or make sound decisions; people with information can. Sharing information encourages people to act like owners of the organization (Blanchard 38).
The second key to empowerment is to create autonomy through boundaries.
Boundaries have the capacity to channel energy in a certain direction.
Some areas that create new boundaries are; purpose - what business are
you in?, values - what are your operational guidelines?, image - what is
your picture of the future?, goals - what, when, where and how do you do
what you do?, roles - who does what?, and organizational structure and
systems - how do you support what you do? (Blanchard 42) A compelling vision
creates the big picture for your company and it comes alive when everyone
sees where his or her contribution makes a difference. Creating autonomy
through boundaries builds upon information sharing, clarifies the vision
(big picture) with input from everyone, helps translate the vision into
roles and goals (little pictures), defines values and rules that underlie
desired actions; when values are clear, decision-making is easier, develops
structures and procedures that empower people and reminds us that empowerment
is a journey (Blanchard 56).
To create an environment that empowers employees, provide an employee procedures manual and written job descriptions to give the team a clear understanding of job responsibilities and boundaries, understand that routines and rules are necessary but don’t be afraid to break them when necessary, be ready to make tough decisions but may also need to reconsider your options, assert authority by achieving high standards and expectations, recognize when to introduce change and implement new procedures in a positive manner and determine what you must do to succeed and then help team members accomplish these goals (Opperman 71).
The third key to empowerment is to replace the hierarchy with self directed teams, a group of employees with responsibility for an entire process or product. They plan, perform and manage the work from start to finish. Everyone shares equally in the responsibilities. Empowerment comes from teaching others things they can do to become less dependent on the manager. Knowing when not to step in so somebody else can act is a very important key to empowerment. Empowered teams can be more than empowered individuals but generally people don’t start out knowing how to work in self directed teams, they must be trained in team skills. The commitment and support for self directed teams must come from the top keeping in mind that a natural step in the process will be dissatisfaction (Blanchard 68). Once you have a high performing team, you can not tell who is the leader. Teams begin to do things that only managers had done in the past, so they can replace the old hierarchy.
The three keys to empowerment may be simple and easy to understand, but are difficult to put into everyday action. The three keys all need to interact with each other. While information sharing is the critical first step, empowering takes all three keys, with a constant shifting in emphasis as needed.
When people are empowered they don’t look up the hierarchy for answers,
they take responsibility to solve problems where they occur. They have
the freedom to act and are also accountable for the results. When a mistake
is made, do whatever it takes to recover. A mistake should be thought of
as an opportunity to learn rather than blaming. People must make mistakes
to continue to improve.
An example of empowerment is related in a story by Peter Grazier “The Cookie and the Orange”. He had visited a grocery store named Fresh Fields; a company focused on healthy foods. He was focused on purchasing healthy cookies (ones with fiber, etc.) and asked if there were any crumbs or samples he could taste. Instead of crumbs, the employee helping him gave him an oatmeal cookie, but also suggested trying the luscious and expensive chocolate chip cookies beside the oatmeal cookies. Mr. Grazier refused the chocolate chip cookies but the employee must have noticed a twinge of doubt in the refusal because when Mr. Grazier returned home and opened his package of oatmeal cookies, he found two chocolate chip cookies that the employee had secretly slipped into his package. The company must have fostered a culture of empowerment that allowed this employee to make an independent decision to delight a customer.
Another grocery store frequented by Mr. Grazier was having trouble with the pricing of oranges. The prices for oranges would be wrong, usually higher at the checkout counter. He brought this to the attention of the produce employees but the problem continued to exist. It eventually took a manager to correct the pricing problem. While talking to the employee in produce, he pointed out the oranges were not selling because of higher prices. Asked if he could change the price, the employee said no, knowing they would be throwing out oranges soon. His frustration in not being able to correct such an obvious problem in his own department was evident.
At Fresh Fields, every employee is aware of his or her impact on profit
and is empowered to take independent action to maximize it. The decision
to give two expensive cookies to a customer is a business decision that
may influence the relationship between a store and its customer. Customers
and profits can be won or lost when employees are enabled to take ownership
of day-to-day problems.
The benefits of self directed teams (empowerment) provides increased job satisfaction, an attitude change from “have to” to “want to”, greater employee commitment, better communication between employees and management, more efficient decision-making processes, improved quality, reduced operating costs and a more profitable organization (Blanchard 104).
The soft benefits of empowerment results in decreased absenteeism, decreased employee turnover - decreasing the cost to search for, relocate and train new employees, improved safety records, a general sense of employee feeling better because feeling better equates to better performance (Grazier 1).
In conclusion, to develop a culture of empowerment, a manager must set aside some of the routine tasks of management and allow team members to make decisions at the entry level. A manager must provide the tools for the team to make those decisions by sharing information and goals of the organization. The results will be greater employee commitment, improved quality and a more profitable organization.
Fox, John, Employee Empowerment: An Apprenticeship Model. Internet.
22June 1998. Available http://members.tripod.com/j_fox/thesis.html
Kaminski, Michelle, How do people become empowered? A case study of union activists. Internet. October, 2000. Available http:www.findarticles.com
Grazier, Peter, Employee Empowerment and Customer Service (The Cookie and the Orange). Internet. July, 1998. Available http://www.teambuildinginc.com/article_cookie.htm
Grazier, Peter, Quantifiying the “Soft” Costs of Empowering Employees. Internet. http://www.teambuildinginc.com/article_softcosts.htm
Blanchard, Ken and Carlos, John P and Randolph, Alan, Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 1996
Opperman, Mark, CVPM, The Art of Veterinary Practice Management, Lenexa: Veterinary Medicine Publishing Group, 1999
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield: Merriam-Webster Inc. 1986
Ettorre, B., The Empowerment Gap: Hype vs. reality Hrfocus, July, 1997.