Using Empowerment to Build Trust and Respect in the Workplace: A Strategy for Addressing the Nursing Shortage

Heather K. Spence Laschinger; Joan Finegan


Nurs Econ. 2005;23(1):6-13. 

In This Article

Theoretical Framework

Rosabeth Moss Kanter's model of organizational empowerment offers a framework for creating meaningful work environments for professional nurses. Kanter (1977, 1993) argues that situational aspects of the workplace influence employee attitudes and behaviors to a greater extent than personal predispositions. She describes various "power tools" that enable employees to accomplish their work in meaningful ways: access to information, support, resources, and the opportunity to learn and grow. Lines of power come from formal and informal systems within the organizations. Jobs that are central to the overall purpose of the organization are highly visible within the organization, constructed in such a way that there is a lot of discretion or flexibility in how work is accomplished, and contain high degrees of formal power. Informal power results from positive relationships with superiors, peers, and subordinates within the work setting that lead to effective alliances. According to the model, employees with access to these power tools are more motivated at work than those without access. They also experience greater job satisfaction and commitment to the organization. Managers can play an important role in providing access to these empowering conditions in the work setting.

Several studies of nurses have linked structural empowerment to factors identified as important for retaining nurses, including job satisfaction (Laschinger, Almost, & Tuer-Hodes, 2003; Whyte, 1995), participation in organizational decision making (Kutzcher, Sabiston, Laschinger, & Nish, 1997), job autonomy or control over practice (Laschinger & Havens, 1996), and organizational commitment (Laschinger et al., 2000; Wilson & Laschinger, 1994). Work settings that are structurally empowering are more likely to have management practices that increase employees' feelings of organizational justice, respect, and trust in management.

Organizational Justice

Organizational justice refers to employees' perceptions of fairness in organizational processes and activities. Interactional justice refers to perceptions of the quality of interactions among individuals involved in or affected by decisions (Bies & Moag, 1986). Interactional justice is particularly salient to concerns expressed by many nurses as a result of their experiences with downsizing in the 1990s. According to Greenberg (1993), interactional justice consists of two components: interpersonal justice and informational justice. Interpersonal justice refers to the extent to which individuals are treated with respect and dignity; informational justice is the extent to which individuals are provided with information or rationale for how decisions that affect them are made. Employee perceptions of justice are significantly related to important organizational outcomes such as job satisfaction, commitment, withdrawal behavior, and intention to quit (Barling & Phillips, 1993; Masterson, 2001; Masterson, Lewis, Goldman, & Taylor, 2000; Moorman, 1991).

Few studies have examined organizational justice or perceived respect in nursing. VanYperen, Hagedoorn, Zweers, and Postma (2000) found that nurses who felt they were not treated with dignity by their supervisors responded negatively, were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior, put less effort into their work, and had a great desire to quit. In a study of Finnish health care workers, of which 50% were nurses, Elovainio, Kivimaki, and Vahtera (2002) found that low levels of interpersonal justice were associated with a two-fold risk of poor self-rated health and minor psychiatric disorders, particularly among women. Thus, perceptions of interactional justice appear to have pervasive effects on employee attitudes and behaviors. It seems logical to expect that if high levels of interactional justice were present in the organization, employees would be more likely to feel that they are respected both as individuals and as important contributors to meeting organizational goals.


Respect has been defined as paying attention to and taking seriously another person (Dillon, 1992). People experience disrespect when they are ignored, neglected, disregarded, or dismissed lightly or thoughtlessly. Although respect is identified as a core value within organizational theory (Sheridan, 1992), research on respect in the workplace is limited. Recently, Laschinger (2004) found that only 38.3% of staff nurses felt they received the respect they deserved from their managers. Mishra and Spreitzer (1998) argue that respect is fundamental to employees' trust of others in the organization. It is reasonable to expect that when employees are empowered to carry out their work in a meaningful way, and are treated fairly and with respect, they are more likely to trust management to represent their best interest.

Organizational Trust

Gilbert and Tang (1998) define organizational trust as the belief that an employer will be straightforward and follow through on commitments. Mishra and Morrisey (1990) argue that open communication, sharing of critical information, and greater worker decisional involvement foster trust in organizations and increase employee productivity. Podsakoff, MacKenzie, and Bommer (1996) linked organizational trust to job satisfaction, organizational commitment, role clarity, and in-role performance.

In organizations that are downsizing, low levels of trust are associated with poor communication and increased conflict (Mishra & Spreitzer, 1998). Structural empowerment seems to offer a buffer to the negative effects of downsizing. In a study by Laschinger, Finegan, Shamian, and Wilk (2001b), staff nurses felt that structural empowerment resulted in higher levels of psychological empowerment, which, in turn, strongly influenced their trust in management. This enhanced trust subsequently had a positive effect on their commitment to the organization. When the work environment is empowering and employees perceive a climate of justice, respect, and trust, it is reasonable to expect that they would experience greater job satisfaction and commitment to the organization.

Job Satisfaction and Organizational Commitment

In a meta-analysis of 48 studies, Blegen (1993) found that the two most important predictors of nurses' job satisfaction were stress and organizational commitment. Communication with peers and supervisors, autonomy, and recognition were also important. Irvine and Evans (1995) found similar results. McNeese-Smith (1995) found that leadership behaviors such as "enabling others to act" had a significant impact on job satisfaction. Strong links between nursing empowerment and job satisfaction were shown in several studies (Laschinger et al., 2001b; Laschinger, Finegan, & Shamian, 2001). Finally, Colgrove (1992) found that work autonomy directly affected work satisfaction, which in turn, affected patient satisfaction with the care they received from nurses.

Organizational commitment consists of employees' attachments to their organization (Meyer & Allen, 1997; Porter, Steers, Mowday, & Boulian, 1974; Salancik, 1977). Employees with high commitment are more likely to rise to the challenges imposed by restructuring. Glisson and Durick (1988) found that individuals with higher levels of commitment were more resistant to job strain and burnout suggesting that commitment may help employees withstand the negative effects of downsizing. Staff nurse empowerment was positively linked to organizational commitment in several studies (Laschinger et al., 2000; Wilson & Laschinger, 1994).


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