Definition Of Employee Empowerment Management Essay


This thesis examines the topic of employee empowerment and seeks to provide a model for its implementation which addresses needs identified in the literature but insufficiently addressed previously.  Empowerment is defined as a process whereby:  a culture of empowerment is developed, information is shared, competency is developed, and resources and support are provided.  Each of the components of empowerment-culture, information sharing, competency development, resource provision, and support-is examined in detail as addressed in the literature.  The benefits of employee empowerment are noted, and objections to it are addressed.  Theoretical foundations of employee empowerment are examined in an extensive literature review.

     A model for understanding and implementing employee empowerment is provided based upon the precepts of apprenticeship.  The apprenticeship model suggests that employees be viewed first as apprentices while their skills and knowledge within a given task set are developing, then as journeypersons through continued development, and finally as masters of their craft.  An assessment of organizational empowerment is provided and training responses based upon this assessment are suggested.


     Employee empowerment is one of those terms that everyone thinks they understand, but few really do.  Ask a dozen different people and you’ll get a dozen different answers to the question, “What is employee empowerment?”.  In fact, research a dozen organizational theorists and you’ll get as many answers to the same question. This paper seeks to answer that question in a way that it can be understood by a greater number of people.  Some writers indicate that empowerment consists of sharing power and authority.  Others say that empowerment occurs when the organization’s processes are set-up to allow for it.  If you keep in mind the secondary dictionary definition of “to give faculties or abilities to:  enable” (Grove, 1971, p.744), with all that this word implies, then you will be on the right track for the purposes of this paper.

     This paper also seeks to answer the question above in such a way that people who work within organizations can apply the information to enhance employee empowerment.  “Why would we want to enhance employee empowerment?” you may be asking.  That detailed answer will be provided in the in the literature review section under the heading “benefits of employee empowerment”.  However, it has been shown that employee empowerment results in increased employee satisfaction, increased productivity, and increased customer satisfaction.

     “Aren’t there some strong objections to the implementation of an empowerment program which must be overcome if we are to receive these benefits?”  The short answer is yes.  Empowerment, if it is to be implemented effectively, calls for a culture change for the typical organization.  Leaders must learn to be visionaries who can provide an idea to which employees will want to dedicate themselves.  Supervisors must change their ways of supervising and learn to be coaches and mentors.  All members of the organization must dedicate themselves to sharing information and to training.  Each of these issues will be addressed in turn.

     Since this is an academic paper, I would be remiss if I did not include a section on the theoretical foundations upon which the concepts of employee empowerment are built.  While there are few theorists who have delved very deeply into what makes up empowerment, what they have mined is rich.  There are more researchers who have attempted to provide a framework for what they have observed; their ideas which have merit will be addressed.

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     Implementation of empowerment programs seems to be the biggest challenge organizations face.  The popular press often writes about “failed” empowerment efforts.  What has become evident to me is that there are some speed bumps on the road to empowerment; often these so called failures are only rough patches which will be overcome.  However, it is also evident that the implementation often takes years, especially if the organization has a bureaucratic culture.  It also seems that empowerment implementation efforts are often haphazard.  By providing an easily understood definition of empowerment, some information about what must take place, an assessment of how empowering your workplace is, and a model for implementation based upon what is commonly understood as an apprenticeship system, I hope to address unmet needs with this paper.


 Literature Review


Definition of Empowerment

     The common dictionary definition of empowerment, “to give official authority to:  delegate legal power to:  commission, authorize” (Grove, 1971, p. 744) is the one most understood by most people.  As an example, Gandz (1990) writes, “Empowerment means that management vests decision-making or approval authority in employees where, traditionally, such authority was a managerial prerogative.” (p. 75) However, this is not the definition of what is usually called employee empowerment.  One author notes empowerment is, “easy to define in its absence-alienation, powerless, helplessness-but difficult to define positively because it ‘takes on a different form in different people and contexts'” (Zimmerman, 1990, p.169).  When most people refer to employee empowerment they mean a great deal more than delegation.  It is for this reason that many authors provide their own definitions.

     Some of these are vague, and meant to be so.  Block (1987) describes empowerment as “a state of mind as well as a result of position, policies, and practices.” (p. 65)  One has to read an entire chapter to understand what he means when he says,

    “To feel empowered means several things.  We feel our survival is in our own hands. . . .We have an underlying purpose. . . .We commit ourselves to achieving that purpose, now.” (Block, 1987, p. 65).  Other authors (Blanchard, Carlos & Randolph, 1996; Blanchard & Bowles, 1998) use their entire book to define empowerment.  Still others provide an excellent perspective of effective empowerment without mentioning the word even once (Freedman, 1998).

     Other author provided definitions are simplistic on the surface, but have far greater implications than a first reading would suggest.  For example, Caudron (1995) articulates empowerment as, “when employees ‘own’ their jobs; when they are able to measure and influence their individual success as well as the success of their departments and their companies.” (p.28)  The casual reader may think that owning one’s job is what the postal worker’s union seeks to provide their members.  Most would agree, however, that job security is not empowerment.  Many employees must measure their jobs by submitting reports.  Seeking one’s own individual success is what the American dream is all about.  And knowing that one makes a contribution to the success of the department and the company is a given in all but the largest organizations.  It is only when these ideas are taken together in one package that they approach a definition of employee empowerment.    Ettorre’s (1997) definition of empowerment as, “employees having autonomous decision-making capabilities and acting as partners in the business, all with an eye to the bottom-line” (p.1) is more accessible to many readers.  While many employees understand their contribution to the work at hand, how many know their contribution to the bottom line?

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     It is this essential ingredient, information with which to make decisions, from which empowerment is created.  Bowen and Lawler (1992) indicate, “We define empowerment as sharing with front-line employees four organizational ingredients:  [the first being] information about the organization’s performance. . . .[another is] knowledge that enables employees to understand and contribute to organizational performance” (p. 32).  The other two ingredients Bowen and Lawler note are, “rewards based on the organization’s performance [and] power to make decisions that influence organizational direction and performance.”  In a later article these authors conclude that, “research suggests that empowerment exists when companies implement practices that distribute power, information, knowledge, and rewards throughout the organization.” (Bowen & Lawler, 1995, p. 73)  The authors go on to note that, “if any of the four elements is zero, nothing happens to redistribute that ingredient, and empowerment will be zero.” (Bowen & Lawler, 1995, p. 74)

     Another author uses this type of combination of concepts to define empowerment.  Spreitzer (1995) indicates,  “psychological empowerment is defined as a motivational construct manifested in four cognitions:  meaning, competence, self-determination, and impact.  Together these four cognitions reflect an active, rather than a passive, orientation toward a work role.” (p. 1442).  Spreitzer notes, “the four dimensions are argued to combine additively to create an overall construct of psychological empowerment.  In other words, the lack of any single dimension will deflate, though not completely eliminate, the overall degree of felt empowerment.” (p. 1442) This additive construct is distinct from Bowen & Lawler ‘s (1995) construct noted above which is multiplicative, indicating that the absence of any one of their four elements (power, information, knowledge, and rewards) will completely eliminate empowerment.

     Researchers tend to provide definitions of the concept of empowerment which reflect observed end results or their research into concepts which are known and are or may be precursors to empowerment.  In his 1995 dissertation, Menon indicates, “the empowered state was defined as a cognitive state of perceived control, perceived competence and goal internalization. . . .The empirical results supported the view that empowerment is a construct conceptually distinct from other constructs such as delegation, self-efficacy and intrinsic task motivation.”.  In this case the constructs of delegation, self-efficacy and intrinsic task motivation are known quantities, each with its own previously tested validity.  Conger and Kanungo (1988) note in their literature review that, “scholars have assumed that empowerment. . . .[is] the process by which a leader or manager shares his or her power with subordinates.  Power, in this context, is interpreted as the possession of formal authority or control over organizational resources. . . .This manner of treating the notion of empowerment from a management practice perspective is so common that often employee participation is simply equated with empowerment.” (p. 471).  However, they also note, ” We believe that this approach has serious flaws.” (p. 471)  Instead, the authors offer this definition, “empowerment is. . . a process of enhancing feelings of self-efficacy among organizational members through the identification of conditions that foster powerlessness and through their removal by both formal organizational practices and informal techniques of providing efficacy information.” (Conger & Kanungo, 1988, p. 474).  Implied here are new roles for managers and supervisors, that is, removing conditions that foster powerlessness and providing feedback about performance, in other words mentoring.

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     Other researchers have attempted to classify what has been written and practiced previously, and found it lacking.  Quinn and Spreitzer (1997) provide two such classifications.  In the, “mechanistic approach” (p. 38) managers and researchers “believed that empowerment was about delegating decision making within a set of clear boundaries. . . . Delegate responsibility; and Hold people accountable for results.” (p. 37)  In the, “organic approach to empowerment” (p. 37) researchers and managers “believed that it [empowerment] was about risk taking, growth, and change. . . .understanding the needs of the employees; model empowered behavior for the employees; build teams to encourage cooperative behavior; encourage intelligent risk taking; and trust people to perform.” (p. 38)  However, they found these two approaches lacking; some combination of the two was needed.  In the end, they indicate, “empowerment must be defined in terms of fundamental beliefs and personal orientations. . . . Empowered people have a sense of self-determination. . . .Empowered people have a sense of meaning. . . .Empowered people have a sense of competence. . . . empowered people have a sense of impact.” (Quinn & Spreitzer, 1997, p. 40)

     The most comprehensive definition of empowerment in the literature can be found in Thomas and Velthouse’s 1990 article entitled “Cognitive elements of empowerment:  An ‘interpretive’ model of intrinsic task motivation”.  The definition they provide is:

To empower means to give power to.  Power, however, has several meanings…authority, so that empowerment can mean authorization. . . .capacity. . . .However, power also means energy.  Thus to empower also can mean to energize.  This latter meaning best captures the present motivational usage of the term.  Our perception is that the word empowerment has become popular because it provides a label for a nontraditional paradigm of motivation. . . .change [has] forced a search for alternative forms of management that encourage commitment, risk-taking, and innovation. . . .the newer paradigm involves relaxed (or broad) controls and an emphasis on internalized commitment to the task itself. . . .We use the word empowerment to refer to the motivational content of this newer paradigm of management. (p. 667)

     In her excellent literature review of employee empowerment, Linda Honold indicates, “to be successful, each organization must create and define it [empowerment] for itself.  Empowerment must address the needs and culture of each unique entity.” (Honold, 1997, p. 202)  It is in this spirit that I offer my own definition of empowerment.  I have drawn on several of the authors noted above and below for concepts.  I will provide credit in the appropriate sections below.


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