Employee Empowerment: Concept, Importance, Process, Principles

employee empowerment

Employee empowerment and involvement, two interrelated but different critical elements of TQM, are important building blocks of organizational success in a TQM setting.

This inter-relatedness suggests that emphasis on one and neglect of the other will simply kill the spirit of TQM. Organizations are likely to fail to venture into continuous improvement if, for example, employees are involved but not empowered.

Meaning of Employee Empowerment

Employee empowerment generally refers to giving power or authority to employees to make decisions and implement them with responsibility and accountability.

Simply put, it is sharing power with employees. The expectation is that empowered employees would be committed contributors because of enhanced confidence in their ability to perform their jobs.

As defined by Besterfield and his associates, empowerment is an environment in which people have the ability, confidence, and commitment to take responsibility and ownership to improve the process and initiate the necessary steps to satisfy customer requirements within well-defined boundaries in order to achieve organizational values and goals.

Whenever an employee is empowered, it means that he or she is responsible for accomplishing the assigned task and is also accountable for its accomplishment.

A pioneer in employee empowerment at General Electric, Steve Kerr, once said: “… empowerment is moving decision-making down to the lowest level where a competent decision can be made.” The basic premise of employee empowerment is that ‘if people are given the authority to make decisions, they’ll take pride in their work, be willing to take risks, and work harder to make things happen.’

Empowerment contributes to the implementation of TQM when it provides employees with;

  1. opportunity to define and document their key systems,
  2. opportunity to learn about systems through training and development,
  3. opportunity to improve and innovate the best practice methods that make systems,
  4. latitude to use their own judgment to make decisions within the context of best-known methods and
  5. An environment of trust in which superiors won’t react negatively to the latitude taken by people in decision-making within the context of a best practice method.

In an organization, empowerment will be fostered if management can create an environment where every employee feels that they have real influence over their own areas of activity.

Importance of Employee Empowerment

Human resources are indispensable for the effective and efficient operation of the organization.

Full utilization of human resources is essential for maximum productivity, and this can be made possible through, among other things, pushing down decision-making authority to the operating employee level and ensuring their total involvement.

Progressive organizations that are now seeking a competitive advantage emphasize employee empowerment and involvement in an endeavor to build cultures supportive of TQM with a view to meeting the challenges of an increasingly competitive industry in the ‘age of unreason.’ Empowerment of employees is essential for releasing the untapped creative energy in the organization.

Every employee needs to feel empowered so that they work wholeheartedly to make the company more responsive to customers and, at the same time, financially sound. And empowering employees requires freeing them from the deadly bureaucratic mindset. Empowerment facilitates involving every worker in the entire process in all the steps, which is a necessity in a modern organization.

As Bill Gates observes: “In a new organization, the worker is no longer a cog in a machine but is an intelligent part of the overall process.” Years ago, Tom Peters urged involving all personnel at all levels in all functions in virtually everything.

Empowerment pays off if properly implemented and monitored.

For example, in U.S. telecommunication firms, empowered self-managed teams involved with customer services, technical and administrative support, and management were found to be more effective than those in traditionally managed units involved with the same types of work.

Empowerment has many benefits, such as:

  • Increasing employees’ motivation to reduce mistakes,
  • Increasing the opportunity for creativity and innovation,
  • Improving employee loyalty and allowing top and middle management more time for strategic planning.

It is necessary to utilize the strategy of moving toward more humanistic management as the specific objective of improving quality management.

The masses have boundless creative power. Top management needs to empower employees to solve various problems and should rely on employees wholeheartedly.

How to Empower?

Obviously, empowering employees is not an easy task. It is a strenuous journey that takes time and requires serenity and a lot of persistence.

In order to create an empowered workplace, managers must understand how to steer the journey to empowerment. It must begin with a top-level philosophical commitment to build the power of individual employees. There are three keys to empowerment:

  1. Sharing information with everyone in the organization.
  2. Creating work autonomy through boundaries.
  3. Replacing the traditional management hierarchy with self-directed teams.

We summarize the three keys here so that implementers of the empowerment process gain insights into putting empowerment into action.

Sharing Information with Everyone

Information sharing with employees is the first step in empowering employees. Information sharing begins with building trust, which is an important ingredient in building empowerment.

Employees need to share information about how the business is doing — profits, scrap, budgets, market shares, productivity, defects, and so on.

Managers/leaders unwilling to share information with employees will never have their people as partners in running the organization successfully and will never have an empowered organization.

And this requires a major shift in the thinking of the managers. Managers have to be bold in sharing even sensitive information.

Withholding information creates distrust, whereas trust is crucial for an empowered organization. When people in the organization do not feel trusted, effective decision-making grinds to a halt. In such a situation, people do not feel empowered, and therefore, they do not act empowered.

Information makes employees qualified to speak. If they are information-smart, they feel encouraged to act like the owners of the organization.

How information sharing can really empower employees at all levels to the benefit of the organization has been reflected in Saturn Manufacturing, where “everyone from manufacturing managers and line workers to design engineers have access to the (quality assurance) data so that teams can work together to improve ” buildability”—how well and how easily parts go together.”

Creating Autonomy Through Boundaries

Employees need less structure if they are to be empowered. They need to be freed from the restriction of rules. They would need structure, but that structure would be of a different kind. Autonomy has to be created through boundaries.

Boundaries (through guidelines) channel energy in a certain direction. There are several critical areas where new boundaries have to be created, such as the purpose of the organization, values, image, goals, roles, and organization structure and systems.

Top management starts with drafting a ‘compelling vision’ in an empowered organization.

Each person in every department translates the vision into roles and goals that have meaning for them personally. The vision tells the right things to do, while the structure of the system (together with defined roles and goals) ensures that things are done right.

Creating autonomy through boundaries builds upon information sharing, clarifies the vision with input from everyone, helps translate the vision into roles and goals, defines values and rules that underlie desired actions when values are clear, and decision-making is easier, and develops structures and procedures that empower people.

Replace Hierarchy with Teams

An organization needs to have as few management layers as possible in order to be responsive to customers.

The traditional hierarchy should be replaced with self-directed teams. Traditional hierarchy is characterized by mostly one-way communication, with decisions flowing from the top down the line. This is the antithesis of empowerment.

However, an empowered, self-directed team, having responsibility for an entire process or product, makes plans, carries out the necessary functions and manages the work from start to finish.

Thus, an empowered team is much more powerful and effective than a disconnected set of individuals. The team members equally share the responsibilities, although there may be a manager selected by the group.

Managers also must be willing to share power with employees; otherwise, the imbalance in power between managers and employees is likely to damage the employees’ morale, leading to the creation of distrust.

We would like to caution that empowerment would be difficult to put into practice unless the managers at all levels, especially the top ones, do have a strong commitment to empowering people, perform behaviors that release the energies of people, and turn their beliefs into action.

Principles of Employee Empowerment

In the implementation of empowerment, certain principles should be followed. These principles would facilitate putting empowerment into action. There are at least eight principles of empowerment. Here, we briefly discuss the principles.

Assigning Important Work to Employees

People feel important and empowered when they are assigned significant tasks. Assigning important work allows them to become purpose-driven and promotes in them a passion for achievement.

Granting Employees Discretion in Doing Work

Employees must first be assigned work and then given the authority to do the work in their own ways, with little dictation.

Granting discretion allows people to make their own choices in doing their work (although they may make mistakes, which is quite natural but helpful for undertaking challenges and risks).

In this working environment, they feel important, empowered, trustworthy, and reliable. Discretion provides choice. And where there is choice, there is power. Where there is power, one can matter.

Allocating Necessary Resources

Assigning important work and giving employees discretion to do the work must be supplemented by the allocation of adequate resources on time, at the right place, and with the right specifications. Failing to give employees adequate resources means failing to give them the power to do their work adequately.

Praising and Recognizing Contributions

Empowerment of employees becomes strengthened and vitalized when managers praise good work and recognize the employees’ contributions.

Praise costs nothing but builds people. It is a powerful and no-cost resource that builds among employees a sense of worth. Praising should be done personally, verbally as well as in writing, consistently, and specifically.

Instilling in Employees the Feeling that Their Survival is in Their Hands

In line with the belief that individual discretion and acceptability create pride, management should make the employees feel that they have control of their own destinies.

They should also be given the feeling that what they do is really important for the survival of the organization. The employees must feel that their activities affect their organization as well as their lives.

Building and Enhancing Task Skills

Times change, and conditions change with them. With the change in work conditions, employees need to be trained to cope with the new situations. They have to be educated to make them empowered and skilled.

To build (and enhance) job skills, managers must diagnose changing job demands, perform task analysis, provide ongoing educational opportunities for all levels of work groups, and model the skills to be acquired by employees.

All are essential to empowerment and involvement, ultimately leading to building effective organizations for the future.

Encouraging Employees to Work in Teams

Managers should encourage employees to build strong teams and to work in them as members of a close-knit family.

As found in the Indian subcontinent, patriarchal families are driven by a sense of bonding and collective good. The members work hard to strengthen the family image in their communities.

Similarly, in organizations, people can bond themselves in teams, which would enable them to be committed to a collective goal.

Organizational teams strengthen individual identity and self-worth. They develop strong individuals, and strong individuals can build strong teams.

Welcoming Surprise

Managers should welcome surprises – the gap between the actual and the expected. Drucker argues that the opportunity for innovation is greatest at that moment of surprise, at the gap between what has occurred and what had been expected to occur.

No innovation or change can be expected in the absence of any surprise which helps us grow. Thus, employee empowerment is strengthened when organizations welcome surprise and turn it to good use to enrich individuals.

We can conclude with the hope that managers in organizations will decidedly opt and go for employee empowerment, along with appropriate training to increase employee capability for effectively performing the empowered responsibilities.

Our belief is that empowering employees to make decisions regarding process improvement within individual areas of responsibility would motivate the employees to feel that they ‘own’ the particular process.

Team Work Practice in Islam

Islam highly encourages its followers to practice and develop the qualities of teamwork. A team is a group of several mutually supportive and interactive persons.

Muslims are enjoined to organize in groups. The group must be solid. Collaboration in doing excellent is the basis for teamwork. Match among the members is the basis for group formation. Groups are attracted to those like themselves.

Islam encourages working in groups but makes it clear that seclusion is better than bad company.

In Islam, Allah (SWT) gives us the gift of brotherhood and sisterhood and encourages us to do things in a group setting or teamwork.

Examples of ways Islam encourages team spirit are Juma prayers and the Hajj Pilgrimage. In fact, if we fail to work effectively as a member of a team, we fail to understand the true meaning of “Ummah (collectively united community)” in Islam.

People in a group can share resources, especially at times of scarcity. A group must adhere to and respect some norms. Allowing some members to break the norms will destroy the group.