Empowered Work Groups

Essay by bonga2007 December 2006

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Motivating employees to work toward a specific goal, improve work quality, work more autonomously, and to advance the mission of the company while achieving personal goals has become increasingly challenging for managers. Empowerment has become the newest "buzzword" in recent management theories. Christopher Bartlett, a Harvard Professor, states, "True empowerment requires trust, discipline, and support. In individualized corporations, employees are provided a working structure in which management allows them the freedom to achieve extraordinary results" (Hasek, 1998). Many theorists agree that empowerment of employee work teams is an effective motivational tool. I will explore in this paper the possible benefits of empowerment and the adverse effects when the team fails to meet the desired objectives and management intervenes.

Section 1 - Article Summary

The article " Stretch before exercising genius" Glenn Hasek records his interview with Christopher Bartlett, a Harvard professor who has extensively studied what makes companies successful. Bartlett states "The new individualized corporation model calls for empowered employees to be responsible for the company's competitiveness and their own learning, and for top managers to support employee's entrepreneurial initiatives and ensure their employability."

Bartlett describes 3M as one of the earliest models of the individualized corporations. 3M encourages employees to develop new products by allowing them time to pursue new projects. By studying 3M, Bartlett concluded that there are three common characteristics of institutionalized entrepreneurial practices: inspiring individual initiative requires that individuals feel a sense of ownership in what they do, the sense of ownership needs to be complemented by a strong sense of self-discipline, and management needs to reflect its respect for the individual in a supportive culture that is open to questioning from below and tolerant of failure (Hasek, 1998). Companies that employ these practices remain a viable fiscal entity while maximizing employee motivation and creativity.

"Empowerment is the process of enabling workers to set their own work goals, make decisions, and solve problems within their sphere of responsibility and authority" (Griffin, 2002). Griffin identifies employee empowerment and participation as one of the most popular motivational strategies used today. Empowerment can help employees accomplish their personal need for achievement while understanding how to achieve the rewards that they want. Griffin (2002) asserts that empowerment will enhance organizational effectiveness only if certain conditions exist. First, the organization must be sincere in its efforts to spread power and autonomy to lower levels of the organization. Second, the organization must be committed to maintaining participation and empowerment. Employees must remain at a high level of readiness in order to be truly empowered. If the team is operating at lower levels of readiness, management may need to reassume some decision-making and this may cause resentment among the team.

William J. Ransom's states that employee empowerment will allow managers more time to devote to personal projects and will have a well functioning, happier team of employees (Hersey, Blanchard, and Johnson, 2001). Hersey, Blanchard, and Johnson (2001) agree that follower readiness is the key to predicting how much delegation of power or authority can be given to a team. Joy Day states that an ownership attitude can generate a productivity increase of 30 percent or more that is sustainable over time. The key is to create such an ownership attitude. Her steps for creating an ownership attitude are: identifying a starting point, education of employees, open communication between manager and staff, creating a daily performance rating system, enforcing quality standards, experimentation with new idea to promote process improvement, communication with others about what ideas and methods the department is using, show loyalty to your employees, expand the decision making responsibilities with staff members, celebrate successes and share failure, and initiate group efforts outside of work (Hersey, Blanchard, and Johnson, 2001).

Conversely, Donald Gerwin (1999) states that North American Firms have difficulty putting team empowerment into practice. In his article "Team empowerment in new product development" Gerwin states that managers may delegate decisions to a cross-functional team at the start of a new product development, but over the course of the project the team's independence tends to diminish. There may be several causes for management to intervene and start making decisions again. The manager may intervene when the team has trouble making the required decisions, or when the team runs into trouble, or when the manager has difficulty with their perceived loss of power. Gerwin states that the effectiveness of teams that have a high degree of interdependence while working on the same project may be limited when one team increases its own power at the expense of another team. Managers must set limits and monitor cross-functioning empowered teams to ensure that product integrity is the highest priority and power struggles between teams are minimized. Withdrawing power does not happen often, occurring most frequently in the areas of setting targets and scheduling/budgeting and least in coordinating with customers, suppliers, and other teams, but it can have serious implications for teams. Managers may fear that team-based approaches are not as effective as traditional methods of organization, and managers may believe that team-based development reduces their authority (Gerwin, 1999).

Section 2 - Relative Interest

Employee empowerment is important in many ways. Employee empowerment has many beneficial effects on employee motivation when implemented correctly. Employee's can gain a sense of achievement, control, and bolster their self-esteem through the use of empowerment. This can create a positive effect on product quality, increased efficiency, and increased profits for the company. Research has shown that employees have a wealth of knowledge and experience regarding their specific job and department. Employees at 3M for example, have been responsible for new products such as waterproof sandpaper and masking tape (Hasek, 1998). Employee empowerment works well in companies that strive to be innovative and diversity is encouraged in their staff. Empowerment does not work well in industries where strict regulations prohibit "creativeness" on the part of employees.

Employee empowerment, however, from a management perspective, can be very difficult to implement and maintain effectively. Ambiguous boundaries of authority, rivalry or conflict between cross-functioning teams, and the need to reassume some authority can all lead to resentment, power struggles, and low employee morale can all be negative effects of empowerment. Managers have to be aware of and plan for many of these pitfalls, which may have the opposite desired effect on employees. Many managers may be reluctant to relinquish the authority they feel they have earned through position power.

Recognizing that the employee's attitude and motivation can be positively related to increased production and efficiency began with the Human Relations Movement and is incorporated into many recent management theories. This concept was discussed throughout Module Two. Employee empowerment is one type of employee motivation that has been explored and development over the last several decades. It is increasingly important for managers to recognize the readiness level of employees and implement differing management styles accordingly to keep a viable, productive work force. Training new employee's is time-consuming and very costly for companies. Motivating existing employees, fostering loyalty to product and company, and creating an atmosphere conducive to new ideas and change amidst everyday workload and challenges is a daunting task for managers. However, employee empowerment can be a tool for managers, if implemented correctly, to redistribute the workload and decision-making while fostering solid productive employees.

Section 3 - Applicable Aspects/Applications of Concepts

I direct a team of seven health care professionals as Director of Corporate Compliance for Coastal Carolina Health Care (CCHC). Each member of the team is responsible for auditing and monitoring a specific aspect of the corporate compliance plan. We work collectively to ensure that each division is operating within the guidelines of the plan. Each team member is "empowered" to implement different action plans in their division to ensure compliance to areas such as safe work practices, blood-borne pathogen training and protection, nursing standards, quality medical care, ethical billing practices, customer service, and retirement and health benefits. In a corporation with 162 staff members, 34 physicians, 6 non-physician practitioners, and a chief operating officer, it would be impossible to efficiently and effectively monitor a comprehensive compliance plan without an empowered work team.

Members of the team are assigned to audit and monitor an area of the plan that best suits their personal qualifications. I do not employ cross training among the team members because each was selected because of their area of expertise in nursing, laboratory, diagnostic procedures, insurance billing etc. I find that this has eliminated some, but not all, power-struggles within the team. The power struggles exist when areas of expertise "overlap" as in the case with insurance billing and office management. Although no direct supervisor-employee relationships exist between team members, perceptions of how and when things get done carry over to team functions. I have tried to solve this problem by setting a schedule of compliance activities and deadlines, but allow the team to implement different methods at the division level. I have intervened on a limited basis and 97% of the deadlines were met.

I believe the main area of concern, for the cohesiveness of the team, lies in motivation. As the director, I am the only team member who is directly compensated for compliance functions. I do not employ, nor do I control any aspect of compensation for my team members. The "home" division evaluates and determines pay increases for each team member. The team was very motivated at the outset of the compliance plan, but as the new- found power and authority turned into projects and deadlines motivation dropped. I have tried to use alternative rewards such as achievement certificates, birthday gifts, food, and emotional support with short-term success, but enthusiasm for new projects has waxed and waned. Compliance Team members serve on the team for a minimum of 12 months and can resign from the team. The Board of Directors elects the Compliance Team members based on recommendations from each division, the Director of Compliance, and employee evaluations annually. I have pushed for compensation for the Compliance Team, but I feel I may lose team members in spite of "empowerment" and alternative rewards.

Section 4 - Comparison/Contrast

I was hired for my first management position at the age of 21. I was the administrative manager for Shoney's Restaurant. I managed a staff of approximately 50 employees. I had taken only one management class prior to being hired. I was promoted within the company from a hostess position. My management style consisted of crisis intervention only. I did not delegate decision-making or discuss options with my employees. I spent a great deal of my time working in the positions of absent employees. The employee wages were minimum wage or slightly higher and motivation to achieve was low. Employee empowerment was a topic we discussed in many district managers meetings. Shoney's developed intermediate management positions such as dining room and kitchen supervisory positions that were filled by existing employees only. The jobs were not published outside the company. Rewards for long-term employment were instituted, as was option of health insurance. Motivation, absenteeism, and morale improved greatly. I worked for Shoney's for four years and developed a sense of commitment and loyalty to my employees that did not exist prior to these programs being implemented. I learned that team building was a rich asset. I learned important skills that I use in my management style today. Employee empowerment can be used at all skill levels. Entry-level employee's and highly trained medical professionals can be motivated by opportunities to communicate questions, ideas, and concerns, making changes to work environment, and respect of their peers.

I feel that conflict is inevitable and being prepared to renegotiate boundaries and set goals can be a positive move for a team. I disagree that taking back or renegotiating authority creates negative emotions or resentment in team members. I feel that when it is done with tact, diplomacy, and respect for the decisions of others it can be a source of relief and closure for the team. Issues that are debated and discussed over a lengthy period of time can be frustrating for many team members. I found that after four or five meetings with no decision forthcoming, that the members were frustrated and were not as receptive to new or revised ideas. I feel that leadership is important at this phase. I have made decisions that are normally made by other team members with improvement in frustration levels and morale.

Employee empowerment can be used as a motivational tool to increase productivity, increase profits, decrease employee absenteeism, and improve morale. Employees can feel increased job satisfaction, higher levels of self-esteem and recognition, be a knowledge base for their company to advance job skills, and promote a positive working environment when empowerment is implemented correctly. Managers, however, may feel a sense of loss of authority and overall direction when employees are empowered. Managers may be held responsible for the outcomes of empowered work teams even though they have relinquished the decision-making to the team. Proper structure, communication, and implementation are necessary to make empowerment work. Empowered work teams is a concept that works well only in companies that strive to be innovative, are open to new and diverse ideas, and support the efforts of their staff. Empowered work teams will not work well in highly regulated fields such as nuclear power plants where strict rules govern job duties and performance levels. Empowerment works best when the team is at a high state of readiness. These employees are knowledgeable about their job tasks and can provide productive insights on how to improve working conditions or task performance. Empowerment can be a motivational tool, however, obtain the desired effects other needs of the employee must also be met. I feel from my own experience that empowerment is motivational, but if the employee is not compensated by monetary or other benefits for their contribution, motivation is short-lived.