Empowering Service Employees

  • David E. Bowen and Edward E. Lawler III
  • July 15, 1995

In the 1970s, Theodore Levitt presented a “production-line approach to service” as the remedy for the sector’s problems of inefficient operations and dissatisfied customers. He argued that the secrets of the production-line approach could be discovered, quite simply, by looking at the world of manufacturing. Industrial practices such as the simplification of tasks and the substitution of technology, equipment, and systems for employees could be transferred to the service sector. Levitt encouraged service managers to think in technocratic rather than humanistic terms.1

In the 1990s, the “employee empowerment approach to service” is being touted as the remedy for problems of poor customer service and inefficient operations. The guiding philosophy of empowerment is nonbureaucratic and participation-oriented.2

Despite its claims, there is considerable vagueness about what actually constitutes empowerment, where and how empowerment works, and how to implement it.3 For some, it means allowing employees to decide how they will greet a customer, while for others, it includes giving employees almost unlimited discretionary spending power to recover from any service problem.

In this paper, we give an overview of the management practices that create what we refer to as an “empowered state of mind.” We then consider the complex issues concerning its effectiveness and implementation. Although we believe that employee empowerment is often the approach that will best fit a service firm’s situation, we also believe that managers need to examine more fully the evidence of empowerment’s effectiveness and the challenges and dilemmas surrounding its adoption.

Creating an Empowered State of Mind

Employees don’t just suddenly feel empowered because managers tell them they are or because companies issue statements saying it is part of the culture. Organizations must change their policies, practices, and structures to create and sustain empowerment. Employees may get a brief rush of adrenaline after a charismatic leader’s speech about how they are the front line of the company and critical to its effectiveness. However, unless all the structures, practices, and policies send the message that employees are empowered to deal effectively with customers, empowerment will not be an ongoing force.

Research suggests that empowerment exists when companies implement practices that distribute power, information, knowledge, and rewards throughout the organization.4 This happens when companies have abandoned the traditional top-down, control-oriented management model for a high-involvement or high-performance approach.