What is Employee Empowerment?
Employee empowerment is giving employees the authority to make decisions about their jobs. That can mean giving employees the authority to decide values, priorities, goals, plans, schedules, methods, hiring, training, etc. In the extreme, it can even mean giving employees the authority to decide their jobs and compensation.
Employee empowerment is also a piece of effective people operations, and it’s a piece that can be overused. For example, too much “empowerment” can sometimes mean too little direction, leading to role ambiguity. “Role ambiguity” is one of the qualities that tend to decrease employee satisfaction and limit worker effectiveness. Research indicates that a balance between empowerment and direction is best, and that balance varies based on industry, culture, and the KSAOs (Knowledge, Skills, Abilities and Other characteristics) of the involved workers.
A balanced approach to empowerment often ends up looking a lot like an attempt to apply the highly important expectancy theory of motivation. “Expectancy theory” identifies three steps that result in higher worker output.
- An employee needs to believe that his effort will result in improved performance.
- The employee needs to believe that his performance will actually affect the intended outcome.
- The employee needs to believe that the outcome will produce a desirable reward. An employee that believes all three feels confident in his ability to gain the desired reward.
What is Employee Engagement?
Employee engagement means inspiring workers to be sufficiently motivated to contribute to the organization, especially with respect to discretionary tasks. Engaged (i.e., motivated) employees join the organization more readily (recruiting), stay with the organization longer (retention), work harder at their jobs (performance), and refrain from sabotaging the organization (risk reduction). Engaged employees contribute more to their organizations regardless of the task, but their improved contribution is especially apparent with discretionary tasks.
A discretionary task is a task for which a manager cannot easily hold the worker accountable. For example, programming work is famously difficult for a business manager to predict; some seemingly difficult tasks can be solved very quickly while other seemingly easy tasks require months of work. An engaged employee maximizes her effort when not required to do so by an external threat or objective measurement.
Discretionary tasks are unavoidable for knowledge workers, and more organizations are depending on knowledge workers than ever before.
Employee Engagement and Employee Empowerment
Expectancy-based empowerment is an important ingredient in engagement, and at DecisionWise, we refer to the idea as “Autonomy.” We consider it one of the six elements to develop employee engagement, but it is rarely enough on its own. The other important qualities are satisfaction, meaning, impact, growth, and connection.
Employee Satisfaction is Needed for Employee Engagement
Employee satisfaction includes such hygiene qualities as a sufficient and competitive compensation, physical safety, job security, honest management, etc. These factors are called “hygiene” factors because (like hygiene), you only consider them when they aren’t good. You don’t pick your friends because of their good hygiene; you just don’t want to be around friends with bad hygiene. Compensation, safety, security, and honesty are rarely at the top of our job-search list, but companies that lack them quickly drop to the bottom.
Finding Meaning in Your Work
Meaning means that our work contributes to something beyond the job itself. Sometimes these are found in mission statements. TED’s mission is “Spreading ideas.” SpaceX’s includes “enabling human life on Mars.” And Advanced Auto Parts’ includes “inspire, educate, and problem-solve.” Humans want meaning in their lives, and workers need meaning in their work in order to fully engaged.
Seeing Impact in Your Work
Impact is advanced empowerment. While “empowerment” usually only means confidence by employees that they can do their job, impact means confidence by employees that their work connects to the organizational purpose and meaning. When an airplane mechanic feels that his work results in an airborne humanity, the bolts get tightened faster. When an agency marketer can see that her work enables small-businesses to the achievement of the American dream, the marketing gets designed better.
Are You Growing in Your Job?
Growth includes improving skills, more responsibility, increased authority, and better compensation. Consider the exercise culture; millions of Americans pay for the privilege of working endlessly at difficult tasks because their work helps them become healthy, strong, and happy. Workers work harder when they believe that their employment helps them not only earn a paycheck but also grow into better people.
How Do You Connect With Others at Work?
Connection means we connect positively with our coworkers. Social psychology informs us that humans are inherently social creatures, and nowhere is that dynamic more evident than groups of soldiers. Individual soldiers sacrifice their lives to save their fellow soldiers. Workers who care about each other work harder for each other—and the organizations that unite them.
Engagement’s Most Important Ingredient is Meaning
Meaning supports engagement more than any other factor. The belief that one’s work contributes to something great inspires effort, enthusiasm, endurance, and extra sacrifice. Something deep within humanity drives us to search for meaning, and organizations that provide opportunities to find meaning attract, retain, and engage their employees to extreme heights of performance.
While empowerment and other employee management concepts (satisfaction, experience, value proposition, etc) are sometimes used to create an employee lifecycle filled with autonomy, impact, growth, and connection, the meaning often goes ignored without a concerted effort.
Engagement has become the term that includes not only hygiene satisfaction principles but also inspirational motivation principles. Because engagement requires meeting a complex blend of human needs, efforts to improve engagement are more effective when the status quo is thoroughly understood.
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