According to the APICS dictionary, employee empowerment is the practice of giving nonmanagerial employees the responsibility and the power to make decisions regarding their jobs or tasks. Empowerment has its roots in lean management, where employees are empowered to stop the production line if they detect a quality problem. The logic is to stop producing defective products and immediately initiate problem-solving.
As a professor at Bryant University, I teach the core operations management courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I cover employee empowerment in two lectures: early in the semester, when I teach quality management; and mid-semester, during a lean management course.
During the quality management lecture, I stress the importance of training employees to know the bounds of their decision-making. I also underscore that managers should not berate an employee who makes a bad decision, as it will deter them (and others) from being proactive in the future. I remind my students that they are in college to be future managers, and empowered employees can help their department achieve higher levels of performance, thereby enhancing their own chances of success.
Then I tell them the bad news: Not all employees want to be empowered — even an employee who does outstanding work might be uncomfortable with that responsibility. Some prefer to do their job as instructed by management, rather than take on a decision-making role. If you give too much autonomy to a good employee who does not want to be empowered, you run the risk taking them out of their comfort zone. You might even create a problem employee with decreased morale and productivity. Therefore, it’s critical for managers to identify who can be empowered and who cannot.
After giving this lecture to a full-time cohort of MBA students, I received an email from one of my students. He and a partner had a software application business, and they had recently hired a programmer to write code for one of their projects. My student had given her broad instructions about what he wanted and envisioned. She missed the deadline, and my student told his partner he wanted to replace her. His partner pleaded with him not to fire the programmer, as she was well-regarded in her field, and she would be difficult to replace on short notice. Firing the programmer would also mean the launch of their software application would be delayed.
After the lecture, my student decided to give her another chance. However, this time he provided very detailed instructions on what he wanted her to do and how to do it. He gave her one week to complete the task. Well, she ended up submitting the work within three days, and she had done an outstanding job. He realized that, in trying to give her a lot of responsibility right away, he made her dysfunctional. She could better serve the company if he offered specific instructions and guidance.
My student’s experience illustrates the importance of identifying employee work styles. Taking the time to understand when people need additional oversight and guidance — and when they’re ready to be empowered – is an essential part of quality management.
As a manager, try delegating small tasks to your employees, then evaluate their performance. Those who rise to the challenge can be incrementally given more responsibility; those who do not — yet perform their jobs well — should be left alone to do their work. After all, empowered employees and good employees both demonstrate that you are an effective manager.