Empowerment in the workplace is generally linked to helping workers feel more confident in their abilities. When they develop a greater sense of power, they’ll overcome obstacles more effectively and make decisions with conviction. At least, that’s the theory.
The importance of empowering employees may be overstated, based on a Journal of Organizational Behavior meta-analysis of 105 studies. Though a summary in Harvard Business Review noted there was little change to routine task performance from employee empowerment, there were other benefits.
The analysis showed benefits for employee creativity and organizational citizenship behavior (actions and behaviors not required by workers, like volunteering for a special project). Another advantage for empowerment is that it fosters trust in leaders who demonstrate the behavior. Those reasons alone produce compelling arguments for learning how to empower employees effectively.
How to Empower Employees: 5 Best Practices
Here are some of the most effective ways to empower employees.
1. Involve Them in Decision-making
As Performance Improvement Quarterly noted, some managers hesitate to involve employees in decision-making because they think they might be relinquishing their responsibility to lead. Others may worry about giving up power and control. However, employee empowerment through decision-making “break[s] down the barriers that prevent open and honest communications,” the authors said.
The social exchange theory explains how granting decision-making input works for empowerment. When managers relinquish power and control by involving employees, workers reciprocate the faith shown by their leaders. As a result, employee trust in managers increases, which was a primary facilitator for employee empowerment found in the Journal of Organizational Behavior meta-analysis. As an added bonus, according to the Performance Improvement Quarterly, involving employees in decision-making promotes their professional growth and development.
2. Grant Autonomy
How should employees carry out their jobs? Empowering leaders encourage workers to decide that for themselves. Providing employees with autonomy and prospects for self-determination can provide psychological empowerment.
Scholars believe that when employees achieve a sense of autonomy, their intrinsic motivation improves, thereby enhancing proactive behavior and creativity. The same is true for teams. An article in Psychological Inquiry suggested that creative teams are most effective when they have considerable autonomy and decision-making ability. A later study published in Cornell Hospital Quarterly made the connection between team-level creativity and empowering leadership.
3. Provide Adequate Resources and Support
Researchers in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that empowering leaders need to provide adequate resources and support, including time, funds, and materials, to facilitate creativity. Additionally, the study concluded that individuals high in organization-based self-esteem (OBSE) — how employees believe they’re capable, significant, and worthy as an organizational member — require adequate resources for generating creativity.
“Simply enhancing employees’ OBSE may not be enough to facilitate employee creativity,” the authors wrote. “Leaders must ensure that the employees are provided with the necessary resources and support. Otherwise, employees with high OBSE may not be able to fulfill their creative potential.”
In other words, the most empowered employees won’t be more creative without proper resources and support. Imagine leaders who empower workers to feel more qualified and valued in the organization but miss out on one of the most significant benefits of empowerment by failing to provide the resources and support that cultivate creativity. Their potential is wasted and, conceivably, they may feel less empowered.
4. Show Confidence
Managers who show confidence in workers’ abilities help promote the way employees view themselves in their roles. When that type of positive message is internalized, employees meet challenging and complex tasks with greater confidence. They’re more likely to generate more creative ideas as well.
There’s another way that demonstrating confidence in workers can empower them, aside from its motivational effect. It’s also empowering to the manager-employee relationship. According to the Journal of Organizational Behavior, showing “confidence in, and concern and respect for, their followers . . . is likely to foster higher levels of trust in the superior.” Employees can reciprocate that confidence toward their manager, empowering them in the process.
5. Examine the Organizational Culture
According to Johny Garner in The International Encyclopedia of Organizational Communication, research has demonstrated the value of the wider organization in empowering employees. A seminal study published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research looked at five influences on empowerment and found that employees’ “feelings of empowerment were most strongly associated with their perceptions of macro‐level culture.” Other research tied in several other areas of organizational culture.
“All of this suggests that empowering organizations motivate employees to feel more capable in their organizational role by developing a climate focused on employees, supporting employees’ voices, helping employees feel that they have control in their organization, and supporting relationships between employees and supervisors,” Garner summarized.
Empowering Employees Authentically
Perceptions toward employee empowerment often suggest value and an approach that’s ultimately incompatible with research. Empowerment isn’t a way to improve performance across the board, and it’s not tantamount to better communication.
In fact, trying to empower employees can backfire. Success ultimately depends on how employees perceive their manager’s behavior. “[Employees] may view greater autonomy or shared decision-making as an indication that the leader trusts them and is providing them with opportunities for self‐development and growth — or they may see those as evidence that the leader can’t lead and is trying to avoid making difficult decisions,” researchers of the meta-analysis said in Harvard Business Review. “In the latter example, employees may become frustrated and uncertain about their role, leading to worse performance on routine tasks.”
The authors pointed to a study in the Journal of Management that compared empowering leadership with the passive and dismissive laissez-faire leadership. After examining how employee expectations impacted their evaluations of leadership, they said that their “results indicate that empowering and laissez-faire leadership in the perceptions of followers are closer to each other than researchers previously thought.”
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