The Pros and Cons of Employee Empowerment

Research published in the 2011 Journal of Applied Psychology (Antecedents and consequences of psychological and team empowerment: a meta-analytical review – Siebert, S.E.; Wang, G.; Courtright, S.H.) […]

Research published in the 2011 Journal of Applied Psychology (Antecedents and consequences of psychological and team empowerment: a meta-analytical review – Siebert, S.E.; Wang, G.; Courtright, S.H.) provided a number of pressing reasons for organisations to encourage employee empowerment. However, as with any organisational strategy, there are both pros and cons of employee empowerment.

By understanding that there are two sides of the coin when instigating an employee empowerment strategy, an organisation will be better positioned to maximise the advantages and minimise any disadvantages.

What is employee empowerment?

For an organisation operating in the fast-paced, modern business environment, passing some responsibilities to employees enables quicker decision-making at a lower level. At lower levels, people generally have a closer and deeper understanding of many of the basic processes and procedures that ‘get the job done’ and help the strategic vision of the organisation to be achieved. It would appear to make sense, therefore, to give people more autonomy in their decision-making: in a word, empowerment.

Empowerment is viewed by seven in 10 employees as an important element of engagement, and employee engagement produces a range of benefits, including:

Because employee empowerment is so highly connected with employee engagement, it is little surprise that many of the advantages of empowerment are directly related to the benefits of employee engagement.

The advantages of employee empowerment

There are several definite advantages of embedding a strategy and culture of employee empowerment. These include:

·       Faster problem solving

First, because empowered employees are so close to issues and problems that require resolution, response times should decrease. Faced with a problem, people who are close to it have a natural affinity for it and a definitive reason to find solutions rapidly – it aids their work, making their time easier and more productive.

Executives are often detached from the shop floor, and lack the depth of knowledge required in the solution-finding process.

·       Increased morale and productivity

People who are given the autonomy to make their own decisions feel trusted and that their contributions are a direct factor in their company’s success. This is a direct determinant of employee morale. For example, 91% of Google’s employees say that they carry meaningful responsibilities within the organisation: for six years running Google has been ranked by Fortune as the best company to work for.

Empowered employees working without continual oversight from a manager or supervisor tend to feel more respected. Artificial obstacles to progress of tasks are removed when employees no longer need their supervisor’s approval to move from one stage to the next. This helps productivity, and profitability per employee improves accordingly.

Additionally, people own the responsibility given to them, and the manager/employee relationship benefits accordingly.

·       Greater involvement leads to greater commitment

With the greater involvement engendered by their increased responsibility, employees become more involved in organisational strategy. They begin to look at colleagues and customers differently, and their commitment to the company and its future grows. Satisfied employees lead to satisfied customers. Such commitment also leads to decreased staff turnover and reduced costs of hiring and training.

·       Lower levels of management stress

When employees are empowered with responsibility, managers become freed to concentrate on strategy and the bigger picture. Instead of becoming enmeshed with day-to-day decision-making, managers can concentrate on strategic objectives, project planning, professional development, and customer-centric activities.

Empowering employees invigorates leadership by removing the stress of day-to-day management responsibilities.

·       Improved staff retention

Empowerment leads to greater satisfaction in the workplace. The 2013 empirical study ‘Employee Empowerment and Job Satisfaction in the U.S. Federal Bureaucracy: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective’ found that empowerment practices (such as information sharing, access to job-related knowledge and skills, and discretion to change working practice) have a positive and sizeable effect on job satisfaction.

In a study of 19,700 exit interviews, the Saratoga Institute found that job dissatisfaction factors were among the top seven factors for people searching for a new job.

Clearly, people who are more satisfied at work are less likely to want to change jobs – and improving staff retention has an immediate and sizeable impact on the bottom line. The Society for Human Resource Management has calculated that replacing a member of staff costs an average of between six to nine month’s salary in recruitment and training costs. For an employee on a $50,000 salary, this is between $25,000 and $37,500.

According to the Work Institute, more than 41 million employees voluntarily left their jobs in 2018. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculating average salary as $48,672, poor staff retention is costing the U.S. economy an incredible $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion per year.

The disadvantages of employee empowerment

·       Lack of experience increases risk

While the handing down of responsibility promises to improve speed, agility and productivity, a concern is that decisions are now being made by less experienced and less expert personnel. This can increase the number of mistakes made and put reputation at risk.

The risk of work practices falling into chaos must be tackled by proper training, and by ensuring that supervisors maintain organisational standards. These standards must incorporate an organisation’s values and beliefs: care must be taken that employees do not work in accordance with individual values that may be divergent to the corporate mission and vision.

·       Potential for decreased efficiency

When people are given the autonomy to make their own decisions, those decisions cease to be uniform. This lack of coordination can lead to problems down the line.

It is also the case that autonomous employees may decide to work slower on days when they feel distracted or lack the energy to forge ahead. Where some workers are performing more productively than others, without being rewarded for doing so, internal friction can increase. If not dealt with, this can cause confrontation or a spiral to the bottom as all workers decide to work at the pace of the slowest and least productive team member.

·       Blurred relationships

Empowerment inevitably leads to a flatter, more streamlined management structure. The risk here is that professional relationships become blurred, and boundaries of authority become broken. This might require greater control over employees, not less.

Accountability issues may arise, leading to a blame culture that, if left unchecked, will lead to further discontent and an environment of mistrust. In such a situation, it is likely that employees will decide to take less responsibility for fear of repercussions should things go wrong.

·       Poor decision-making

If a team lacks the individuals with skills commensurate to the project, tasks and work required, decision-making will be poorer. This will be to the detriment of the organisation, as poor solutions lead to decreasing productivity and internal conflict.

How can you improve employee empowerment?

Empowering employees is a cultural issue. Organisations that promote an environment of trust, clear communication, delegation and accountability tend to be good at employee empowerment. Here are five key practices that will help your managers and leaders empower their employees.

1.     Share your organisation’s vision

Clear communication of vision is central to embedding a sense of ownership in your workforce. People who understand the vision and how their work contributes to achieving that vision are more likely to feel a part of something rather than just another number on the staff rota.

2.     Share more responsibility

Delegating responsibility for work that is designed to improve the capabilities of your employees helps them develop professionally. This will strengthen your team’s ability to work autonomously and lead to lesser need for direct management.

3.     Stop micromanaging

People become stifled in their work when they are micromanaged. Instead of managing tasks, delegate the responsibility for them, setting expectations clearly and providing guidance on responsibility. Decisions will be made autonomously but in line with organisational needs.

4.     Be open to input

Especially when engaging people in transformational change, being open to ideas and involving people in decision-making helps to empower employees and bring out innovative thinking.

5.     Be constructive and recognise good performance

Ensure that you recognise people for their effort and good performance, providing positive and constructive feedback to aid continuous improvement. It’s important to be specific when giving feedback and to highlight how positive behaviours have had a positive impact on colleagues. Positive feedback and recognition encourage people to be more creative problem solvers.

The bottom line

Weighing up the pros and cons of employee empowerment, the potential benefits to individuals, teams and the organisation are clear and tangible. The potential drawbacks can be controlled by good management techniques, including:

  • Positive leadership
  • Coaching, training, recognition, and rewards schemes
  • An open and transparent communicative environment

Within a culture of employee empowerment, organisations will develop higher-performing teams that think for themselves, developing innovative solutions as they work toward shared goals – and not a robotic workforce consisting of people who do what their managers tell them and now more.

Emotional intelligence among leaders is also associated with the ability to embed a more empowered workforce, helping people to take the initiative and evaluate their own performance.

In short, if an empowerment strategy is well managed, your people will become partners in your success. They will become a transformative force that will jumpstart change and ensure the goals of your strategic vision are accomplished.

In our next article, we’ll examine the path to employee empowerment in more detail.

Complete this short Employee Experience Assessment to help identify the key areas you need to focus on as a company.

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