By Sylvia Melena, M.A.
True empowerment gives employees the freedom and strength to look beyond the status quo and do great things for the organization. It motivates employees to be innovative and to champion organizational excellence.
Seven Elements of Employee Motivation
The research of Krüger & Rootman focused on the following seven elements of employee motivation:
- Interesting and Meaningful Work
- Recognition and Feedback
- Employee Involvement (Empowerment)
- Working Conditions
- Strong Leaders
- Company Policies and Environment
In the last two posts, we reviewed Element 1 – Interesting and Meaningful Work and Element 2 – Employee Recognition and Feedback. This post will focus on Element 3 – Employee Involvement, also referred to as empowerment.
Element 3 – Employee Involvement (Empowerment)
Krüger and Rootman’s research determined that, of the seven elements above, employee involvement (or empowerment) was the third most influential in terms of employee motivation. Empowerment is the process by which managers give employees the power and authority to make decisions at their level, recognize and solve problems, and look beyond their job descriptions to identify opportunities for organizational improvement.
The Benefits of Empowerment
Numerous studies have demonstrated that empowerment promotes job autonomy, provides employees with a rewarding job experience, encourages higher levels of involvement, and motivates employees to offer up great performance. Several decades of research have also demonstrated that empowerment has a positive effect on employee satisfaction and employee commitment to the organization. This is not surprising.
Employees are happiest when working in empowering, collaborative environments, because they are conducive to team cohesion, information sharing, and openness to various perspectives and ideas. Thus, an environment of empowerment increases employee morale, creativity, and productivity. In this type of environment, employees are committed to going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure the success of fellow employees and the organization.
Empowered employees are also in a better position to provide excellent customer service. In a culture of empowerment, employees who work directly with customers are able to make service delivery decisions quickly and to tailor their services on the spot, without having to go through layers of approval. They can do this, because their management has created an environment where they are free and safe to make such decisions.
Empowerment not only creates efficiency, but motivates and equips employees to deliver fast and responsive service that promotes a highly satisfying customer experience. Highly satisfied customers mean more business for private companies, more funding for non-profits, and higher constituent approval ratings for government.
Most Employees Do Not Feel Empowered
As much as empowerment is vital to the success of companies and organizations, many employees do not feel empowered by their leaders. In fact, surveys of employees in the U.S. have consistently shown that most view their boss as their greatest source of workplace stress.
The Huffington Post reported similar research findings from a survey of American employees, which were presented by Robert Hogan at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in 2012. According to The Huffington Post, Hogan reported that seventy-five percent of adult employees pointed to their immediate boss as the worse and most stressful part of their jobs. Furthermore, The Huffington Post also emphasized the World Health Organization’s assertion that workplace stress takes a tremendous toll on employee health and costs American businesses an estimated $300 billion annually. 
These findings highlight the importance of creating supportive and empowering environments that can retain top talent, keep employees healthy, and promote the success of the organization.
Strong Leadership is Paramount
Empowerment flows from the top down, and strong leadership is paramount to creating a culture of empowerment. When managers and supervisors collectively create a supportive and empowering work environment, employees at all levels of the organization feel freedom and control over their daily work. Leaders who manage with high command and control styles not only disempower employees, but cause high degrees of interpersonal conflict. Conversely, leaders who are able to effectively empower employees create an environment of support and reduce levels of interpersonal conflict.
Given the key role that strong leadership plays in ensuring employees are empowered to perform at their very best, it behooves organizations to expect their leaders to create a culture of empowerment and to build their leaders’ capacity to meet these expectations.
Empowerment is Not a “Free for All”
While empowerment is a vital element of employee motivation and strong organizational performance, it is critical not to confuse it with a “free for all,” where there is a complete absence of direction. Managers and supervisors must be skilled at striking a delicate balance between empowerment and accountability. While empowerment allows employees to make decisions at their level, accountability provides them with an appropriate framework for making these decisions within the expectations, values, and scope defined by the organization. To expect employees to make decisions without providing a solid foundation is not empowering.
Developing Employees for Effective Empowerment
Managers and supervisors must adequately prepare employees for empowerment. They can use a variety of practices to build employee capacity for more autonomy, decision-making, and involvement. These include strong employee on-boarding, continuous coaching and feedback, ongoing training,, mentoring programs, progressive levels of responsibility, and stretch assignments. These practices equip employees to understand the priorities of the organization; know their jobs well; adequately assess risk; make decisions as appropriate; know the importance of communicating vital information; and leverage the support of their managers and supervisors when the situation requires it.
By its very nature, empowerment demonstrates management’s trust in employee capabilities and thereby increases employee confidence in what they can accomplish. A higher level of confidence in their own capabilities increases employee motivation, involvement in continuous improvement, and the achievement of higher levels of performance.
 Krüger, J. & Rootman, C. (2010). How do small business managers influence employee satisfaction and commitment? Acta Commercii, 10(1). pp. 59 – 72.
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