Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

5 Ways Empowerment Does (and Does Not) Increase Productivity

ARCHIVES

Ask EIG is your chance to seek answers to public sector management challenges and conundrums. Submit your questions here.

When does empowerment become counterproductive to a manager or leader?

--Anonymous

Thank you for your intriguing question.  Current fashion in leadership education and research typically indicate that empowerment is always a good thing.  As the question suggests, perhaps this is not the case.  But before predicting when empowerment is good—or not so good—for a leader, it is important to first define what is meant by empowerment.

Empowerment has many definitions but most, at least with respect to organizations, cluster around two different meanings.  First, in its simplest and most common form, empowerment means to invest someone with authority, to authorize.  In other words, empowerment involves a superordinate—a boss—assigning to an individual or team, decisions rights over resources (time, physical resources, money) so that they make decisions about what to do and how to respond to specific situations without checking in with the boss.  This perspective of empowerment assumes a hierarchical organization in which decision rights are “pushed” down the hierarchy.

(HAVE A QUESTION? Submit your most pressing management questions below or click here)

The second common definition of empowerment focuses on the willingness of individuals to make decisions.  This self-actualization form of empowerment features emotions and confidence about making decisions, the ability to overcome barriers that are in the way, and to feel that it is appropriate make decisions and take action.  In organizations, successful empowerment requires both an assignment of decision rights and an individual’s or team’s confidence to use them.

Contrary to much of the leadership literature, empowerment may not always yield performance improvements for an organization.  If empowerment yields lower efficiency in the short and long run then it is counterproductive for organizations.  To figure out this counterproductivity, let’s begin by first understanding when empowerment is productive.

With two colleagues, I studied a garment facility that shifted from individual piece rates (a price paid to a worker for each sewing operation performed) to group piece rates (a price for sewing the entire garment split equally among a team).*  In essence, management empowered the team to make all production decisions in sewing where under the prior situation individuals were assigned a specific and narrow repetitive task like sewing inseams.  Overall, empowering autonomous work teams led to a stunning 14% productivity improvement over individual production and, arguably, a better culture and work environment.  In a fascinating twist, the most productive individual workers essentially took a pay cut of up to 40% to work on empowered teams, presumably because they enjoyed them more than working alone!  From the study can be deduced five sources of improved productivity from empowerment.

When can empowerment improve productivity?

  1. Empowerment at the garment facility yielded greater productivity for most but not all teams.  Most workers enjoyed working with others and demonstrated collaboration skills.  But a few teams declined substantially in productivity.  These workers seemed not to enjoy being on a team and did not display collaboration skills.  Empowerment in teams may require individuals who enjoy working with others and who possess collaboration skills.
  2. Empowerment of teams led garment workers to productively use and share their individual information and knowledge, which seemed superior to that possessed by management, to increase productivity.  Empowerment therefore may be useful when workers have superior information and knowledge.
  3. Team output was easily, comprehensively, and precisely measured.  With accurate and precise measurement and feedback for the team and management, empowerment may make it easier for teams to improve productivity.
  4. Team members could easily monitor each others’ contributions and effort.  Empowerment and easy peer monitoring may encourage social punishment of any member who deviates from the norm.
  5. The team had an incentive—in this case income—to collectively improve performance.  Empowerment and strong enough incentives may generate both a high performance norm and the motivation to achieve it.

These five features explain why team empowerment worked brilliantly at the garment facility.  Turning these features on their head helps to identify when empowerment might be counterproductive.

When can empowerment be counterproductive?

  1. Empowerment may not be advantageous in a team setting if individuals aren’t interested in working with others or do not possess collaboration skills. 
  2. Authority is a better form of organization if leadership has costly-to-transfer and superior information and knowledge not possessed by subordinates.  In this case, command and control can deliver superior organizational performance.
  3. When team output cannot easily be measured then greater oversight of effort and adherence to specific process steps are called for, assuming leadership can observe effort and verify process steps.
  4. If team members cannot easily monitor each other’s actions and aren’t motivated to do so then it becomes easy for each worker to take it easy and shirk. 
  5. Without an incentive—financial, career, acknowledgement, status, some form of socialization, etc.—it may be difficult for teams to adopt a high performance norm, a common goal, and have motivation to achieve them.

In my view, empowerment is a useful leadership approach for most situations.  Nonetheless, it isn’t always the best option as applying it in some situations can be counterproductive.  A challenge for leadership, and in government in particular, is finding ways to structure work so that empowerment offers a superior approach.  Doing so not only can lead to substantial productivity gains but also create a superior organizational culture and work environment.

Duce a mente (May you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson

* Barton Hamilton, Jack Nickerson, and Hideo Owan (2003). “Team Incentives and Worker Heterogeneity:  Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Teams on Productivity,” Journal of Political Economy (111,3): 465-497.

Image via trainman32/Shutterstock.com

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.