Over the last two decades, the concept of “empowerment” has turned into a management intervention force improving the satisfaction of employees. Over the years, empowering employees has become rather popular in Western societies, though rather puzzling to HR managers in Eastern societies. Western societies commonly regard empowerment as a powerful tool that enhances employee satisfaction. While some researchers regard empowerment as a discretionary authority at work (also referred to as “discretion empowerment”), others perceive empowerment as something bigger than simply job autonomy by regarding the concept as an intrinsic motivation (also referred to as “psychological empowerment”). Many American researchers fairly treat empowerment as leadership behavior (also referred to as “leadership empowerment”) that facilitates employee performance by enabling and encouraging their work roles. While discretionary empowerment assumes control over how employees do their work, psychological empowerment helps employees realize that they can do their job better, and leadership empowerment supports and encourages employees’ work efforts.
Aside from these theoretical classifications, the core issue on empirical agenda is the extent to which the concept of “empowering employees” is capable of functioning within different cultural contexts. The referenced works by McFarlin & Sweeney (2001) and Fock et al (2013) are among lead research contributions in this context. The effectiveness of the mentioned theoretical generalizations often proves ambiguous and ineffective in practice considering diverse multicultural contexts of a contemporary professional working environment.

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Considering this, scholars suggest exploring boundary conditions capable of mitigating or enhancing the effects of empowerment on employee satisfaction. One of such boundary conditions refers to cultural values. Overall, HR management researchers hold that empowerment is mostly ineffective management tool within high power-distance cultures. While some cultures well accept unequal distributions of power in the workplace, many studies have shown that the effect of cultural values bounds to discretionary empowerment. This poses a serious question of whether the effect of psychological and leadership empowerment will also be limited within a high power-distance context.

Fock et al (2013) explain the effects of empowerment by means of a model proving that whenever managers proclaim leadership empowerment behaviors, an organization benefits from higher levels of psychological empowerment, perceived discretion, and higher job satisfaction among the employees. At that, Fock et al (2013) perceive power distance as a cultural value assuming subordinate relationship for managers. This indicates that employees from high power distance cultures usually anticipate autocratic treatment from their managers. Such a treatment leads to greater workplace discretion and makes subordinates de-motivated and uncomfortable with their job performance. Consequently, the effect of discretion empowerment on employee satisfaction is weak in high power-distance societies.

With regard to leadership empowerment, Fock et al (2013) argue that in high power distance cultures such as China employees are more deferential and loyal to their managers. Overall, Fock et al (2013) hypothesize that high power distance is increasing the effect of leadership empowerment on discretion and psychological empowerment. Hence, leadership empowerment will not benefit the employees in low power-distance cultures (e.g. Canadian) compared to their high power-distance counterparts (e.g. Chinese). This means that high power-distance cultures will better receive leadership empowerment. While leadership empowerment well aligns with discretion empowerment and psychological empowerment, the cultures with high power-distance orientation (like Chinese) show the greatest level of alignment. As a result, higher discretion and psychological empowerment lead to higher employee satisfaction. Overall, power distance is a force that moderates the relationship between discretion empowerment and leadership empowerment, while their relationship (alignment) works better for high power-distance employees. The same concerns the alignment between psychological empowerment and leadership empowerment with their most effect on high power distance employees.

  • Fock, H., Hui, M. K., Au, K., & Bond, M. H. (2013). Moderation effects of power distance on the relationship between types of empowerment and employee satisfaction.
  • Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44(2), 281–298.
  • McFarlin, D. B., & Sweeney, P. D. (2001). Cross-cultural applications of organizational justice. In R. Cropanzano (Ed.), Justice in the workplace: From theory to practice (Vol. 2, pp. 67–95). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.