Empowering Front-line Service Employees

April 07, 2019 •

3 min reading

Service Employee engagement and empowerment: one size doesn't fits all

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Intuitively there is a lot that speaks in favor of empowerment. Service contexts are notoriously dynamic, uncertain, and time constrained. Guest expectations are hard to predict and even harder to satisfy on the spot. And when service delivery failures occur, guests often expect a solution right here and right now. The more upmarket a property is, the more pronounced these issues become …

Empowerment facilitates appropriate reactions by front-line service employees and speeds up both service delivery and service failure recovery. When front-line service employees are empowered to act, they can make sure that guests receive the appropriate response quickly. After all, "I have to check with my supervisor" is the last thing a disgruntled guest wants to hear.

However, with all the excitement about the power of empowerment, a couple of basic assumptions have been overlooked. Managers often take it for granted that empowerment can be applied in a "one size fits all approach". But what if employees lack the skills that are necessary for empowerment to succeed? And what if they genuinely do not wish to be empowered?

A look at some recent research on empowerment sheds more light on what the approach can achieve - and what it cannot …

When properly implemented, empowerment programs can indeed have positive consequences for hospitality firms. In several studies in mid-market and upmarket hotel chains operating in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, employee empowerment was strongly related to employees' willingness to "walk the extra mile". These behaviors include positive contributions to co-workers - for instance helping and supporting co-workers who are overloaded - and to the organization as a whole - for instance making constructive suggestions for improvements in service processes.

Maybe even more important is the tendency for empowered employees to show stronger customer service behaviors, especially ways that go above and beyond rigid service protocols and role requirements. So it seems that those who empower their front-line service employees will reap benefits. But where is the catch?

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It seems like there are two main barriers to empowerment, one of them related to skills and the other related to attitudes.

Employees who are new in their workplace, who lack experience, or more generally, who lack self-assurance in their work environment will have a natural tendency to react with less enthusiasm to empowerment. For them, the increase in responsibility and accountability that goes hand in hand with the empowerment concept may translate into anxiety and a perception of being overwhelmed, rather than the exalted feeling of being liberated from procedural and supervisory shackles. For these employees, tight procedures or the watchful eye of a more experienced superior may be more then welcome. They provide the scaffolding for successful performance in the job.

The other finding that emerged quite strongly from the research is an attitudinal one. Employees differ strongly in the extent to which they perceive hierarchy and "power distance" between superiors and subordinates as something desirable or undesirable. Some of these differences are of an individual nature. They are related to personal values that an employee developed over time.

Others, however, have strong cultural origins. As a matter of fact, "power distance" is one of the fundamental variables on which seminal research in the area of culture, for instance the work by Geert Hofstede, have differentiated national cultures. In national cultures that are high on the power distance variable - many of those countries are located in the Middle East, large parts of Asia and Central and South America - a certain distance between superiors and subordinates is perceived as desirable. Bosses are expected to lead from the front and provide guidance. Empowerment may seem like an invitation to exhibit behaviors that would normally be interpreted as challenging or disrespectful towards one's superior. In such cultural contexts, the usually beneficial effects of empowerment can be neutralized or even reversed.

In summary, research on empowerment in hospitality suggests the following recommendations:

  1. Understand your staff members before you empower them
    Are you dealing with subordinates who are experienced, possess all the necessary technical skills and work in effective teams. If not, empowering them can make feel them powerless and overwhelmed - rather than empowered to do good things
  2. Understand your cultural context and the values of your staff members
    If you work in a cultural context that is characterized by high power distance, or if your staff members come from backgrounds that encourage high power distance values, you may want to be careful in empowering them.
  3. Consider that empowerment does not have to be "all or nothing"
    You can empower employees selectively. Many organizations have successfully introduced empowerment programs with a safety net. For instance by setting certain boundaries on what employees can decide themselves or on the financial commitments they may not surpass without consulting their superior.

After all, performing tightrope acts with a safety net is always preferable …

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This article was first published on HospitalityNet.org

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Full Professor of Organizational Behavior at EHL