Workers who feel empowered by their employers have higher morale and are more productive, regardless of their industries, jobs or cultures, according to new research from the University of Iowa.
"Empowerment is an effective approach for improving employee attitudes and work behaviors in a broad range of industries, occupations and geographic regions," said lead researcher Scott Seibert, professor of management and organizations for the Tippie College of Business.
The study shows that, when done properly, empowerment initiatives lead to higher job satisfaction, lower turnover and reduced stress among employees. Empowered workers are also more innovative and perform better at their jobs.
Seibert and his co-authors examined more than 140 previous studies of various aspects of psychological empowerment in the workplace published since 1995. They then looked for similarities in those studies' outcomes and conclusions. Although the studies don't support the often extravagant claims made by media, they do tend to exaggerate the value—or lack thereof—of empowerment. Some claim it will revitalize an organization with "lightning-like" speed, while others dismiss it as a "chimera" and point to high failure rates at organizations that try it.
The studies do identify certain organizational characteristics and leader behaviors, as well as employee traits, that lead to successful empowerment initiatives. Effective empowerment initiative should include the following.
High performance practices. Managers share information, decentralize authority, involve workers in decision-making, provide training opportunities and pay well. Seibert says high performance management makes workers feel a strong part of their organization and that they matter to the firm's success.
Socio-political support. Managers make their employees feel like valued parts of the organization, and encourage employees to recognize each other's importance.
Leadership. A manager who inspires, provides strong feedback and is a good role model enhances workers' feelings of competence and helps employees find meaning in their work.
Work design characteristics. Managers encourage training and provide individual workers with challenging work assignments.
"Managers in these studies reported that empowered workers were more innovative and more willing to take the initiative to solve problems on their own," Seibert said. "Employees said they were more engaged in their work when empowered, that they felt like they had an influence and an impact on the business around them."
These work improvements apply to improved team performance as well as individual performance, and that they tended to be strongest in the service sector.It also found that men and women generally have similar reactions to empowerment.
The study also showed empowerment had an impact across national borders and cultures, though its impact seems to be greater in Asia than in North America. Seibert says that could be because empowerment is more effective in collectivist cultures where individuals react more strongly to cues promoting identification and inclusiveness, or that work arrangements in Asian businesses are more conducive to empowerment initiatives.
The study also found that employees who have positive self-evaluation characteristics are more likely to feel empowered, and people who feel more empowered to begin with will react more strongly to empowerment initiatives.
Seibert's study, "Antecedents and Consequences of Psychological and Team Empowerment in Organizations: A Meta-analtyic Review," was co-authored by UI doctoral students Gang Wang and Stephen H. Courtright and will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.