What is employee empowerment?


Employee empowerment is a leadership strategy that gives teams greater autonomy. 

Employee empowerment is a leadership strategy that gives team members greater freedom to generate ideas and make decisions.

In theory, transferring decision-making to employees – rather than micro-managing – will make them more accountable and encourage innovation. In turn, this can make team members more motivated, productive and engaged.

But to reap these benefits, employees must also have the skills, data and authority to make the right decisions. Otherwise, the delegation is meaningless.

History of employee empowerment

Although ‘employee empowerment’ is a new term, the idea of delegating decision-making responsibility is as old as top-down power structures. Ancient kings and queens, for example, conferred power on networks of trusted barons and bureaucrats to take decisions on their behalf.

Academics have been studying the dynamics of employee decision-making since at least the 20th century, trying to find the best formulas for success. Back in 1959, psychologist Frederic Herzberg and colleagues explored the connection between delegation and motivation among employees. Since then, academics have studied various approaches to employee empowerment, such as providing challenging tasks, transferring organisational power and psychologically empowering employees through meaningful work.

Recent trends in employee empowerment

The relevance of employee empowerment has grown in step with the services sector, where people are an organisation’s primary asset. When employees feel empowered it can lead to improved job performance, job satisfaction and organisational commitment, all of which help service companies succeed.

In 2018, a meta-analysis was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior that reviewed field experiments on leaders who empowered subordinates. It looked at 105 studies, examining data from more than 30,000 employees across 30 countries to clarify when empowering employees actually works.

The study found that empowering leaders have a positive impact on employee creativity. Team members are free to generate new ideas and new ways of doing things. Empowering leaders also give rise to citizenship behaviour, such as supporting co-workers, and employees are more likely to trust them.

But employee empowerment has less impact on routine, day-to-day task performance. The strategy is also less effective for long-standing team members, as newer employees are more receptive to the approach.

Advantages of employee empowerment

There are many potential benefits of employee empowerment, such as:

  • Increased creativity and problem-solving as employees are expected to be more proactive
  • Greater employee engagement resulting from the increased responsibility
  • Employees develop in their roles as they learn new skills
  • High job satisfaction as employees feel more heard
  • Higher employee retention rates
  • Power transfers to subject matter experts within organisations, leading to more informed decisions
  • Frees up management time as small decisions are taken by more junior employees

Disadvantages of employee empowerment

However, achieving these benefits demands careful planning and strategy, as it is possible for empowerment to backfire. The Journal of Organizational Behavior meta-analysis found that, in some cases, when leaders gave employees more responsibility and challenges, it made them feel overwhelmed and stressed. The leaders who developed strong, more trusting relationships with their teams tended to see better results.

How employees perceive the process is also critical to the outcome, according to the meta-analysis. Some can view greater autonomy as a sign the leader is weak and is trying to avoid difficult decisions. This can result in frustration and uncertainty, and, ultimately, worse job performance.

Use case

Taken to the extreme, employee empowerment can become a self-managed organisation. One example is Buurtzorg, a Dutch healthcare provider with a nurse-led model.

The organisation employs more than 10,000 nurses and assistants in 850 self-managed teams. The core staff is backed up by regional coaches who support the teams as needed, while a lean back-office team takes care of the administrative side.

Buurtzorg claims to have the highest client satisfaction of any healthcare organisation and high staff satisfaction.