On motivating knowledge workers

The idea of empowerment can be described as ways of acting by leaders aimed at achieving more initiative and responsibility-taking by subordinates or followers, more willingness to take risks and make mistakes; less preoccupation with clearing everything before acting [1]. The idea of empowerment is not a new one. It has been expressed earlier within the themes of participative leadership and management by objectives [2]. More recent discussions on empowerment are conducted within the context of a shared leadership.

Knowledge work requires significant personal investments in, and voluntary contribution of, intellectual capital by professionals. As it is very difficult for a single person to have all the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for all aspects of knowledge work, this kind of work is increasingly becoming team-based [3]. With such transformation of knowledge work, the idea of empowerment appears as an effective way of achieving good performance of knowledge-workers teams. In this work the problem of empowerment is presented within the context of leading a team of technical professionals. The discussion starts with the characteristics of the knowledge work and motivation of technical professionals. Then, the challenges of leadership are indicated and described.

Characteristics of knowledge work and knowledge workers

As opposed to a manual work, where the task is always given, in knowledge work the task is typically not obvious. Therefore, the task does not program the knowledge worker, but instead of this, it is rather the role of knowledge workers to define what the task is or should be. Moreover, once the task has been defined, “it is the knowledge worker’s decision what he or she should be held accountable for in terms of quality and quantity with respect to cost. Knowledge workers have to have autonomy and that entails responsibility” [4].

            Productivity of knowledge workers depends on the qualities and commitment of individuals. The more complex the particular knowledge work, the stronger this dependence reveals [5]. Katz [6] analysed the problem of motivating technical professionals. Starting from a general characteristics of tasks, he developed a multidimensional framework (see Tab. 1) relating the organization’s and professional’s orientation priorities, which shows two different ways of looking at these characteristics.

Tab. 1. Multi-dimensional framework for work motivation

Task Dimension

The Organization’s Orientation Priority

The Professional’s Orientation Priority

Skill Variety

To utilise one’s skills and abilities.

To learn and develop new skills and abilities.

Task Identity

To become a contributing member of the organisation.

To become a contributing member of the profession.

Task Significance

To work on projects that are important to the organization.

To work on projects that are exciting within the profession.


Strategic clarity.

Operational autonomy.


Subjective data and information processes.

Objective data and information processes.

Source: Katz R.: Motivating technical professionals today, IEEE Engineering Management Review, Vol. 34, No. 1 2006, p. 97.

Specifics of knowledge work call for leadership styles employing empowerment. On the other hand, the above framework shows that priorities of technical professionals and their organisations are not necessary identical, and without leadership intervention may even tend to diverge. This shows the need for a manager to maintain a right balance between the trust in, and the control over, his subordinates, which is the key factor of the effective empowerment.

The challenge of effective empowerment

A comprehensive definition of empowerment has been formulated by Peter and others [7]. It includes seven aspects: power, decision making, information, autonomy, initiative and creativity, knowledge and skills, and responsibility (see Tab. 2). These seven elements overlap and vary according to the work environment.

Tab. 2. Seven aspects of empowerment


To empower, managers must grant power to subordinates that allows them to complete work.

Decision making

Subordinates who are empowered must be allowed decisions, with or without the input of management.


Subordinates must have relevant information tasks for which they are granted discretion


Empowered subordinates must have autonomy without constant supervision of managers.

Initiative and creativity

Subordinates who are empowered should take find creative ways to solve problems and complete

Knowledge and skills

To be fully empowered, subordinates must have and skills for carrying out responsibilities.


Empowered subordinates must be accountable through a general sense of responsibility.

Source: D.W. Pitts: Leadership, Empowerment and Public Organisations, Review of Public Personnel Administration, Vol. 25, No. 1 March 2005, p. 9

Thus it is rather difficult to formulate a universal recipe for effective implementation of empowerment idea. The process should be adjusted to the specific environment of work, individual behaviour, readiness for team working, maturity of work organization, task characteristics and so on. That is why the process of successful empowerment is a continuous learning process for the leader and his (or her) subordinates [1]. For the leader, it means continuous learning how to delegate duties according to subordinates’ skills, sense of responsibility and extent of their commitment as well as how to encourage and motivate people to be more self-reliant in the decision making process. The leader should find a way to be more involved with the subordinates’ work to understand their expectations but also to be understood. The subordinates need to feel the reasons to take more initiative and responsibilities. They have to trust the leader and feel his or her continuous support for each of them individually.

Effective leadership involves conscious and controlled delegation of authority to subordinates, explaining to them what they are being entrusted with, the boundary of their decision making, and the responsibility that goes along with it. Such a way of empowering subordinates builds the feeling of ownership in the organization and the community of interest. Subordinates working in such an organizational environment are encouraged to create and share new ideas. It enables more effective utilization of organizational knowledge and consequently makes the company more competitive.

The leadership behaviour in empowering a team of knowledge workers

Nowadays, knowledge work is becoming team-based because it is difficult for one person to have all knowledge and skills required in work that needs to be done. Moreover today’s knowledge workers would like to make a meaningful influence on the results achieved through team-based knowledge cooperation.

A completely developed empowerment idea in a team of knowledge workers (e.g. R&D technical professionals) can be observed when all the members of the team are fully engaged in the leadership of the team and contribute to the leadership processes. This state is called “shared leadership” [3] and exists when all members of the team influence and guide one another in order to maximize the potential and effectiveness of the team.

In traditional thinking leadership is understood as one person influencing followers downward (vertically). It is termed vertical leadership [3]. Shared leadership is developed for knowledge work in which team-based approach is necessary to carry out highly complex tasks (i.e. research, development and test of high-tech products), requiring great creativity of the team. A leadership process of these kind assumes that the authority to lead is passed around the vertical leader (the official team leader) and interdependent team members (unofficial leaders) and it is taken over by the person who has the key skill and knowledge desired to guide the team across obstacles at a given moment.

The role of the vertical team leader is crucial in developing a shared leadership process. The vertical leader has to design the team, select team members, articulate the confidence in the team, and set and manage team boundaries for the range of decision making and responsibility. The leader should clarify the expectations and conditions and give freedom to function within those boundaries.

Four main types of a leader’s behaviour, which can leverage knowledge work have been identified as: directive, transactional, transformational and empowering [3]. These leadership styles can emanate from the vertical leader and can be shared between team members. The fourth behaviour seems to be the most interesting in the context of empowering subordinates. Empowering leadership behaviour supports the self-influence of employee and rather does not use top-down control. The result of sharing the empowering leadership style can activate self-goal-setting, self-evaluation, self-reward and self-development behaviour of team members.  That way team performance can be improved, while preserving autonomy of the technical professionals, who usually need to feel autonomy in their work. It can be another of the motivating factor for technical professionals, who become more reliant on their own initiative and decisions, and who – as a result – are able to take more responsibility [6].

Having highly motivated team members is essential for fostering innovative performance of the team as a whole. Knowledge workers feel well-motivated if their work is innovative and challenging, giving them a chance for freedom and independent actions, while using their knowledge and skills. Professionals also want to feel that their work offers them opportunities for individual development and extension of their knowledge and capabilities. Effective leadership keeps continuous excitement in a team, which motivates the team members to be more creative.

Knowledge work leadership

The shared leadership can be characterised by full engagement of all team members in the leadership of the team, to influence and guide their fellows in an effort to maximise the potential of the team. In this sense, shared leadership can be considered as an extreme form of participative leadership and a manifestation of fully developed empowerment in teams [3].

            Because shared leadership is a complex and time-consuming process, it can be effectively used for certain types of knowledge work. Pearce [3] argues that three characteristics of knowledge work, particularly related to the need for shared leadership, are:

  • highly integrated and interconnected tasks;
  • need for creativity, which by its nature requires inputs from many individuals;
  • complexity of the work that requires experts on various task components.

Given continuous changes in personnel, technology, markets and other elements of the environment the problem of empowerment is never definitely solved. This means that the process of empowering subordinates is not a definitive action that, when decided, becomes a given for that group of a leader and followers. Instead, empowering makes the leadership a continual learning process. Therefore, the basic challenge of shared leadership is that the leader needs to learn continuously what empowerment means to these specific persons in this specific context. Followers need good reasons to take the increased initiatives empowerment is aimed at. They need to trust the leader and feel that his actions are in support of them [1].

            The team leader is largely responsible for the design of the team. Hence, to the extent possible, he should carefully select team members. The team leader must also articulate the vision of the team’s overall purpose. His responsibilities include also team boundary management, i.e. maintaining good relations with external constituents and securing resources. Besides the role of the leader, the successful empowerment is also dependent on organizational systems. Major elements facilitating the development of shared leadership are:

  • training and development systems for the leaders and the team members themselves;
  • reward systems incorporating both team and individual components;
  • cultural systems based on trust [3].


Implementing the empowerment idea in knowledge worker teams can be effective to improve their performance and to give technical professionals additional motivation to do their tasks more efficiently. In practice, empowerment is a revised version of the people-oriented and democratic leadership, focused on the role of the subordinates in a team and on treating them as equals. Leaders who are focused on human aspects of leadership use the Theory Y approach to human nature. Such leaders understand the ability of subordinates to use their own discretion and knowledge to take responsibility for decision making in their work. Empowering of knowledge workers and leadership sharing is the logical consequence for a vertical leader to be more effective.

The use of empowerment in knowledge-worker teams can be very effective to leverage their capabilities. What empowerment means in a given context and how it could be successfully implemented is not an obvious thing, thought. This causes many difficulties for the leaders of such teams. Empowerment is worth the effort. “There is no way to create significant change unless you are willing to let things get more out of control than you are comfortable with [1].

(TR, MS, 2007)


[1] P.B. Vaill: The learning challenges of leadership, IEEE Eng. Mgmt. Review, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2006

[2] L.J. Mullins: Essentials of Organisational Behaviour, FT Prentice Hall, Essex, 2006

[3] C.L. Pearce: The future of leadership: Combining vertical and shared leadership to transform knowledge work, IEEE Eng. Mgmt. Review, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2006

[4] P.F. Drucker: Knowledge-worker productivity: The biggest challenge, IEEE Eng. Mgmt. Review, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2006

[5] M. Maccoby: Is there a best way to lead scientists and engineers? , IEEE Eng. Mgmt. Review, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2006

[6] R. Katz: Motivating technical professionals today, IEEE Eng. Mgmt. Review, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2006

[7] D.W. Pitts: Leadership, Empowerment and Public Organisations, Review of Public Personnel Administration, Vol. 25, No. 1, Mar. 2005