Empowerment! The word is spoken with apprehension by too many leaders. What races through their heads are menacing images of “employees giving away the store” and “bosses giving up control.” Some employees want more of it; some want to be told precisely what to do and not worry after five o’clock. The label has been overused, misused and misunderstood.
Every time we hear someone exhorting leaders to “empower” employees, we remember Joe O’Toole, the boss of Chip’s first full time job out of college. Joe was a crusty ex-union buster who had started out in the textile mills of South Carolina kicking butts and taking names, as he liked to brag. And many a fellow employee lost his breakfast worrying about an upcoming meeting with Mr. O’Toole.
One day Joe called a meeting to announce that the company was shifting to a participative management philosophy. The idea of Joe being participative was about as likely as Attila the Hun being compassionate. But, Joe was a good soldier. If the company wanted people to be more participative, he’d give it a try. Everyone was reassured, however, that the world as we knew it was not about to come crashing down, when Joe ended the meeting with: “Our division WILL have participative management. And, you’ll participate, by God, or I’ll fire your butt!”
Joe’s heart was in the right place, but he missed the point. As leaders struggle with “close encounters of the empowerment kind,” there is potential to fall into a similar trap. Like Joe, most leaders want to do the right thing. And, like Joe, some risk missing the point.
What is empowerment? Empowerment is the self-generated exercising of professional judgment and discretion on the customer’s behalf. It is doing what needs to be done rather than simply doing what one has been told to routinely do. Empowerment is the essential tonic for taking care of customers. Its importance lies in the fact that while customers regularly follow our rules they typically fail to follow our expectations. And, because they enjoy personalized service, it requires employees with the authority to zig and zag to fit the encounter to the customer’s requirements.
Empowerment does not mean unlimited license…”just do whatever you need to do…” it means responsible freedom. It also means helping the employee balance the freedom to go the extra mile for the customer with the responsibility of taking care of the organization; good service coupled with good stewardship. Bottom line, it means helping employees acquire and demonstrate the perspective of an owner.
Empowerment is not a gift given to employees by leaders. When leaders ask, “How do I empower my employees?” one gets a sense they are thinking of it as a gift they bestow. The job of the leader is to liberate. This means releasing power, not giving power. Think of it like this: power is contained inside the employee. Most employees have all they need bottled up inside. They just need the freedom to exercise it! Empowerment is the effect when leaders examine the work environment and their own leadership practices to identify and eliminate barriers getting in the way of responsible freedom. Below are four barriers which are frequent culprits.
Focus on What Matters Most
Today’s employees work smarter when they feel a part of an important mission or vision. And, they make more responsible decisions on behalf of the organization and the customer. When asked, “What are your doing,” the apathetic bricklayer stated the obvious…”laying bricks.” But, the committed bricklayer answered, “I’m building a great cathedral.” Mission or vision provides employees a focus on the cathedral-building mission, not just the brick laying task.
FedEx chairman Fred Smith reminds FedEx employees of their purpose or vision: “You aren’t just ‘taking stuff by 10:30 am.’ You transport the most precious cargo in the world–an organ for a vital transplant, a gift for a special ceremony, a factory part that may have halted a company.” This attitude lead a courier to get creative when he encountered a drop box frozen shut in the middle of the winter. Backing his truck into the box, he uprooted it from its concrete base, dragged it through the backdoor of the truck and hauled it with him to the local FedEx station. Its precious contents did not miss their deadline. He was not chastised for damaging company assets he was celebrated for living the company vision.
What matters most is not only an aspirational service vision to be pursued but a core service offering to be maintained. While the romance of what we can be is compelling, the protection of what we are is the foundation on which service dreams are constructed. A liberating leader never lets employees take service air for granted. Hospital leaders know that as memorable as great bedside manner might be to a patient, an immaculate setting is vital to patient care. Banking leaders know that beyond the call of duty attention only counts if customers know their funds are safe and their transactions accurate.
Service air is the non-sexy, ordinary part of service that can never be ignored or taken for granted. When Catalyst Ranch founder Eva Niewladomski says that certain actions or inactions are “not allowed,” what she is really saying is, “Don’t ever mess with service air.” When a nurse supervisor celebrates great patient care but also terminates employees for ignoring safety rules, he or she is safeguarding the underpinnings of great service. When a bank manager passionately preaches extraordinary service but then goes ballistic over repeated errors in customers’ statements, he or she is protecting the core.
Support Failing On Purpose
Empowerment begins with error! Employees learn quickly whether they are empowered when they make a blunder. If the error is met with rebuke, it sends a very different message than if leaders view error as an opportunity for learning and problem-solving. Isn’t it highly unlikely the person in charge of hiring your employees said, “Let me see how many brainless, malicious, or shiftless employees I can hire this week?” Yet, how quickly an error-making employee can be labeled as stupid, evil or lazy…and, on whose watch? Great leaders know innovation and mistakes are kissing cousins, not bitter enemies.
Without risk, there is no learning, no creativity, and no motivation. With risk, there are occasional honest mistakes. It is easier to gently reign in an over zealous, go-the-extra-mile employee than to find one with such an enthusiastic attitude in the first place. Empowering is all about trusting and the greater the trust; the greater the freedom. But, with liberation comes responsibility. It is the leader’s role to coach employees to help them feel more and more comfortable with more and more responsibility.
The concept of “support failing on purpose” has two important meanings. First, it means intentional error—failing on purpose or deliberately. Great leaders know too many employees have comfort zone several sizes too small. It is important they nudge employees to venture outside the empire of the habitual into the kingdom of discovery and growth.
Intentional error, however, does not mean an invitation to be reckless or foolhardy. The second meaning is to “support failing on purpose”—that is, consistent with purpose or vision. If going the extra mile is the visionary mantra of the organization, what would a mile and a half look like? If quality is a virtue, what would quality+ mean? The vision and values of the organization can be important borders to help reign in zealous but irresponsible judgments. When employees are passionate about the organization’s purpose, like the FedEx courier, they can responsibly go beyond what is customary on behalf of customers.
Create Solution Spaces
Maria Montessori was a gifted French educator whose work formed the basis for Montessori schools throughout the world. At the core of her philosophy is “creativity through structure.” The approach directs teachers to add structure to the “mindless” part of a child’s learning environment…where the building blocks go, the child’s place in the story circle, the layout of accessories when preparing to paint…which frees the child to funnel energy into higher-level thinking.
A solution space provides a framework for decision making, offering clear guidance near the edges plus space for latitude and creativity in the middle. It is a way of saying to employees, “Within this space, make whatever decision you think is best for the customer. Outside the space, please check with someone else.” Employees need guidelines, not unlimited license. The leader who says, “Just go do whatever you think is best,” is likely demonstrating abdication, not empowerment. Yet, guidelines need sufficient elbow room for employees to adapt to the situation and to the customer.
Customers do not want sameness in their service experiences. While they clearly wish for consistency in the product they are purchase or in the outcome they buy, they also want to be treated uniquely. This requires front-line flexibility. When that unique treatment has the potential to be enchanting, it especially requires employees who feel they have a wide berth in which to operate.
It is dangerous to assume employees will just know what they are and are not allowed to do—or even that they will believe you the very first time you tell them, “Yes, you can.” Many employees have probably heard ‘no, you are not allowed’ too many times in their past. Empowerment takes some getting used to—for both leaders and employees. It takes frequent and candid feedback, the fertilizer of employee growth. It requires celebrating excellence that failed, not just results that succeeded.
Drive out Fear
What is the greatest show-stopper of service ingenuity? It is not employee fear of supervisory reprisal; it is employee fear of associate rebuke. Most employees must deal occasionally with the boss, but associates are there pretty much non-stop. While leaders cannot and should not referee every employee-to-employee interaction, they do have significant oversight over the temperament of the work atmosphere.
The menacing nature of criticism can creep slowly into a culture through simple neglect and idle tolerance. It begins with letting pass a backhanded comment hurled by an employee who got up on the wrong side of the bed. The smoldering fire of scorn is further fanned by not intervening when overhearing an employee privately speaking ill of an associate. Soon employees are playing their cards close to their chest out of a concern of being the subject of someone’s ridicule.
Great service leaders insist on kindness. While affinity cannot be legislated, consideration certainly can be. Leaders cannot force an employee to be sincerely thoughtful; they can clearly make vindictiveness and emotional brutality a career-limiting no-no. This does not imply leaders should lead delicately or tread lightly for fear of disharmony. Kindness is not the opposite of toughness; it is the opposite of meanness. Strong leadership is necessary to effectively immunize the culture against the invasion of malice.
The Raggedy Edge of Empowerment
Empowerment is a never ending journey. Often, leaders feel impatient with how long it all takes. As employees learn the business, leaders will feel more comfortable entrusting them with decisions and letting go. Customers will become more loyal; employees more well rounded, leaders able to focus on bigger picture issues, and the journey becomes a worthwhile trip.
Employees also have their challenges with empowerment. Overzealous front-line employees can make decisions without the experience or competence to do so. Empowered ignorance can be anarchy. Again, it requires patience for both leader and employee. On the flip side, some employees may not grab the brass “E” ring as rapidly as leaders prefer. It can seem a lot safer to just “do what you’re told,” especially if the employee has been burned in the past for initiative that did not pan out. Employees need to learn through experience that mistakes are tools for growth, not traps for punishment.
As long as organizations have people at different levels, empowerment will be a challenge. The wise leader recognizes the enormous power which can be harnessed when barriers to responsible freedom are eliminated and employees are encouraged to think like owners. Morale climbs, burnout is reduced, leaders feel responsibility shared, and profits soar as customers rave about the organization full of employees who are engaged, inspired…and empowered!