AuthorLawrence Kleiman, Scott Droege

Page 253

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:

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