Empowerment is one of those strange management concepts. Every manager claims to provide it in abundance, but many employees don’t feel they have any. How do you explain such a contradiction?
There are several ways to approach the issue. It was best expressed during one of our consulting engagements when an employee said, “In our company we are all empowered…to make the right decisions.” Empowerment to make the right decisions is not empowerment; it is a fear-based control technique. When employees feel that they are only empowered to make the right decisions, their inclination is to make none. The possible repercussions of making wrong decisions are stronger than any other threat a manager can use to shape them into obedience and compliance.
In Strativity’s 2014 Customer Experience in Action Study, 37 percent of executives surveyed said their employees are empowered to service and address customers’ issues. This means that 63 percent of employees show up to work every day with a task they are not equipped to accomplish. You can only imagine what message this sends.
Empowerment is a difficult issue for many managers because delegating power is perceived as losing power. They view authority as a zero-sum game – the more they give, the less they have. The more they delegate, the less they are relevant and needed in the organization. They may argue: If the employees can make all the decisions and are empowered to make mistakes, then why do they need me? So these managers will continue to claim they empower their employees, but will make sure such empowerment is applied to the right decisions only – the decisions that will make the managers look good.
Another challenge of empowerment is the employees’ willingness to take part and take responsibility in the company’s future. It is often assumed that employees are ready and eager to assume more responsibility in the form of empowerment to make decisions on behalf of the company. We ought to remember that empowerment is not a fun perk: It means more responsibility and accountability for your decisions. If the company does not provide employees with the incentive and motivation to be part of the organization, they will be reluctant to assume the additional responsibility required as part of
So here we are in a cycle of managers and employees struggling toward empowerment, each group for its own reason. Who pays the price? The same person who keeps on paying the price, the customer. She is being hassled through a maze of underpowered employees and heavily controlled, authority-driven measures that are geared toward protecting personal agendas and power centers, not toward servicing the customers.
As simple as it sounds, the power to serve customers becomes a differentiating factor. Customers will grant loyalty to those who are not hassling them. It is common sense, but only 37 percent of the companies surveyed have managed to implement it.
As you approach the changes required to empower your people, remember that both employees and managers need to be addressed.
Think about your company’s approach to mistakes: What happened to people who made mistakes in your company? Were they promoted or fired? Did you celebrate mistakes or hold them as an example of the wrong thing to do?
Mistakes are the result of employees who take risks – the type of risks that will lead to excellence and breakthrough. Do not crush that spirit, embrace it. Celebrating mistakes will send the message of empowerment better than any memo can. It will be a wonderful, not mistaken, step in the right direction.
This blog is also posted on the Human Capital Institute website.
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