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Balancing Employee Happiness and Productivity


June 24, 2016

Conventional wisdom holds that an empowered employee is more likely to be a happy, productive employee. Or does the employee display productivity first, therefore warranting more empowerment from their supervisor? This conundrum is at the heart of research co-authored by assistant professor of management Lauren D’Innocenzo.

Lauren and her co-authors surveyed nurses over a two year period using a four-part definition to gauge their feelings of empowerment: feelings of competence, meaningfulness of work, ability to make an impact, and autonomy in their roles. Prior studies had established that when employees rate their feelings of empowerment highly, they also tend to perform well. However, the data tended to come from snapshots that didn’t factor in how well an employee had performed in years prior or how their feelings of empowerment had changed as a result.

Lauren’s team sought a more holistic view by surveying the nurses over a two year period and comparing that data to their regular performance reviews over time. What they found supported the view that empowerment results in positive performance gains, but revealed a deep level of reciprocity. Basically, prior strong performance resulted in more empowerment and ultimately, even stronger performance. This virtuous cycle continued over the two year period, leading to incremental gains over time.

For employers, the question is how to begin this beneficial cycle of empowerment and productivity. The authors suggest focusing on setting goals in small chunks early on for new employees. “Set some goals so that employees can see performance wins early on because those wins are likely to impact empowerment levels. That way you can start the cycle on a positive spiral,” D’Innocenzo explains.

For more senior employees, D’Innocenzo’s findings suggest a focus on redesigning their job roles or expanding their responsibilities in order to foster an increased sense of empowerment and start the positive cycle.

At any level, the research reveals that goals and expectations need to be realistically reachable in order to foster growth in both productivity and empowerment.

The researchers’ paper, “Modeling Time-Lagged Reciprocal Psychological Empowerment–Performance Relationships” was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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Headshot of Lauren D'Innocenzo

Associate Professor, Management