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What is Employee Empowerment?

Quality Glossary Definition: Employee empowerment

Employee empowerment is defined as the ways in which organizations provide their employees with a certain degree of autonomy and control in their day-to-day activities. This can include having a voice in process improvement, helping to create and manage new systems and tactics, and running smaller departments with less oversight from higher-level management.

A key principle of employee empowerment is providing employees the means for making important decisions and helping ensure those decisions are correct. When deployed properly, this should result in heightened productivity and a better quality of employee work and work life.

How Does Employee Empowerment Work?

Employee empowerment varies based on an organization's culture and work design. However, empowerment is based on the concepts of job enlargement and job enrichment. Job enlargement differs from job enrichment in that job enlargement is horizontal expansion and job enrichment is considered vertical.

  • Job enlargement: Changing the scope of the job to include a greater portion of the horizontal process.
    • Example: A bank teller not only handles deposits and disbursement, but also distributes traveler's checks and sells certificates of deposit.
  • Job enrichment: Increasing the depth of the job to include responsibilities that have traditionally been carried out at higher levels of the organization.
    • Example: The teller also has the authority to help a client fill out a loan application, and to determine whether or not to approve the loan.

As these examples show, employee empowerment requires:

  • Training in the skills necessary to carry out the additional responsibilities
  • Access to information on which decisions can be made
  • Initiative and confidence on the part of the employee to take on greater responsibility

Employee empowerment also means giving up some of the power traditionally held by management, which means managers also must take on new roles, knowledge, and responsibilities. However, this does not mean that management relinquishes all authority, delegates all decision-making, and allows operations to run without accountability. It requires a significant investment of time and effort, especially from management, to develop mutual trust, assess and add to individuals' capabilities, and develop clear agreements about roles, responsibilities, risk taking, and boundaries.

What Does an Empowered Organizational Structure Look Like?

Employee empowerment often also calls for restructuring the organization to reduce levels of the hierarchy or to provide a more customer- and process-focused organization.

Employee empowerment is often viewed as an inverted triangle of organizational power. In the traditional view, management is at the top while customers are on the bottom; in an empowered environment, customers are at the top while management is in a support role at the bottom.

Organizational Power Triangle
Employee Empowerment Diagram


Employee Empowerment resources

Driving Higher Workplace Performance: Using Analytics, Dashboard Metrics, and Soft Skills to Improve Results When assigned the task of improving warehouse performance for a Western Canadian industrial distribution center, a lean Six Sigma Black Belt discovered the differences between "human" and "automated" business processes.

Get Staff Involved in Quality Initiatives (Quality Progress) By challenging employees to solve quality problems, a company saved more than $3.5 million the first year.

If You Give Your Employees a Voice, Do You Listen? (Journal for Quality and Participation) Making it easy for your employees to share their feedback is the first step. Being willing to respond quickly to their input builds commitment.

Empowerment in Total Quality: Designing and Implementing Effective Employee Decision-Making Strategies (Quality Management Journal) This paper provides a conceptual definition of empowerment and offers an implementation strategy for total quality management managers.

Adapted from The Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence Handbook, ASQ Quality Press.

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