Empowering Service Employees

Magazine: Summer 1995Research Feature July 15, 1995 Reading Time: 33 min
David E. Bowen and Edward E. Lawler III
Leadership, Talent Management

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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

September–October 1972. “Production-Line Approach to Service. and structures to create and sustain empowerment. REFERENCES (59) 1. University of Southern California. Organizations must change their policies. Edward E. School of Management. and policies send the message that employees are empowered to deal effectively with customers. ALREADY A MEMBER? SIGN IN NOT A MEMBER? SIGN UP TODAY! Member Free 3 Free Articles per month. 41–42.” Harvard Business Review. pp. Read the Full Article: Sign in. and . US Unlimited digital content. See T. School of Business Administration. 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. Lawler III is director. Free newsletter. free newsletter. entire archive. practices. Levitt. control-oriented management model for a high-involvement or high-performance approach. knowledge. Arizona State University West. $6. Subscriber $75/yr. ABOUT THE AUTHORS David E. Center for Effective Organizations. unless all the structures. empowerment will not be an ongoing force.50/article thereafter. and rewards throughout the organization. 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.need to examine more fully the evidence of empowerment’s effectiveness and the challenges and dilemmas surrounding its adoption. buy as a PDF or create an account. practices. However. Research suggests that empowerment exists when companies implement practices that distribute power.4 This happens when companies have abandoned the traditional top-down. Bowen is professor of management. information. quarterly magazine.

Mishra1 and 2. pp. and Work Redesign 1. September–October 1976. 63–74. Employee Recruitment and Retention. Spreitzer2 . Justice. Organizational Psychology. Empowerment. Performance AssessmentREPRINT #: 3646 Explaining How Survivors Respond to Downsizing: The Roles of Trust. Gretchen M.” Harvard Business Review. Aneil K. “Industrialization of Service. Show All References TAGS: Employee Engagement.