By Steve Kelman

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Employee empowerment and improved performance: The missing link

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Does empowering frontline employees increase the performance of those employees and the organizations they work for? This question is an oldie but goodie for government managers and for academic researchers focused on public management.

Traditionally, government organizations were not empowerment-friendly. Instead, they tended to operate as bureaucratic hierarchies. More-senior executives told employees what to do -- instructions that often involved following organizational or governmentwide rules. This way of doing things had long been subject to criticism, but the empower-the-front-lines approach got a real boost 25 years ago during the Clinton administration’s reinventing government effort, which championed it.

Support for empowerment is linked with support for greater employee discretion; if you are going to empower employees, you will be providing them greater discretion to decide what to do. The argument is that empowered employees will be more motivated to work harder and that, when empowerment is accompanied by coaching and providing employees with information, it gives people on the frontlines, who are closer to the problems, what they need to make better decisions.

The impact of empowerment on government employees has been the subject of a fair bit of scholarly research. Studies show a positive relationship between empowerment and employee job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and intention to continue working in the organization. However, there has been much less evidence of the link between empowerment and performance.

The problem is that the few existing academic papers dealing with this topic all gather information on both organizational performance and perceived empowerment from the self-reports of the same respondents. This method is seriously flawed. When a respondent is rating both degree of empowerment and organizational performance, they are likely -- if they like empowerment -- to raise their ratings of organizational performance, inflating (or even creating) a link between the two. For many years, this problem was a bane of public administration research, and devastated its credibility with many scholars.

In recent years, however, public administration researchers have finally taken a page from the book of management research at business schools, which takes care to survey different groups of sources when gathering information about the management practices being studied and the effects that may be produced. (I blogged a few months ago about a study of the impact of different ways managers communicated the importance of the organization’s mission on the strength of employee mission commitment.)

Now a new study, “Taking a Closer Look at the Empowerment-Performance Relationship,” uses this approach to provide the first credible evidence on the link between employee empowerment and performance.

The study, by Russell Hassan and Jos Raadschelders of Ohio State, and Jongsoo Park of Korea University (a recently graduated PhD student of Hassan’s), forthcoming in the Public Administration Review, focuses on the performance of police officers. Hassan and colleagues gathered data from police managers participating in a Public Safety Leadership Academy at Ohio State. They surveyed the participants, and, as part of a 360 assessment, surveyed the participants’ bosses and up to six subordinates (their names were provided by the managers)

The results are encouraging for those who have argued over the years that empowering employees improves performance.

To measure managers’ use of employee empowerment as a leadership technique, the survey asked each participant’s subordinates the extent to which the manager practiced sharing power and supporting, coaching and recognizing employees, with three illustrations of each kind of behavior. To measure subordinate performance, for example, the survey asked each manager to what extent the employee “adequately completes assigned duties and responsibilities” and “meets performance requirements of the job.” Thus, the data about empowerment came from one source, data about performance from a different one.

Lastly, a question was asked the managers’ supervisor how well the manager’s work unit performed overall, with questions about the quality and quantity of the unit’s work and the “overall performance” of the unit.

The findings are fascinating and convincing. The supervisors of participants scored the manager’s unit as higher-performing if the participant’s subordinates scored the manager higher on use of empowering techniques. Thus, these data come from two different sources, neither of which is the participants themselves, significantly adding to their credibility. We can conclude that supporters of empowerment seem to be right.

The paper has some other neat conclusions. In addition to asking about managers' use of empowerment techniques, the authors also asked subordinates to score their manager on what the paper calls “task-oriented leadership” -- the traditional bureaucratic techniques of clarifying, planning, problem-solving, and monitoring. Scoring higher on bureaucratic management, the study finds, does not improve the unit’s score in how well it performed overall. However, the authors asked the managers’ supervisor another question, which was to rate the subordinate’s “overall effectiveness as a manager.” Managers rated high on “task-oriented leadership” were considered more effective than other managers, while empowering leadership was not related to this.

The authors argue that respondents tended to see “effectiveness” as success according to traditional bureaucratic leadership standards, rather than the newer performance-oriented ones. The paper suggests that task-oriented and empowering leadership play two different roles in an organization, both important in general and in police organizations specifically. Empowering leadership helps an organization perform better. Traditional bureaucratic leadership helps an organization avoid misbehavior.

Hats off to Hassan and colleagues for a smart and very practical paper.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 14, 2018 at 8:04 AM


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