The Problem with Empowerment

EmpowermentA huge buzzword from the 1980’s was the concept of “empowerment” of employees. A powerful and worthwhile concept, it is probably one of the least effectively executed business strategies, which is such a shame, since effective implementation can benefit an organization in so many ways.

The concept seems so simple: give front line employees the ability to make business decisions without having to seek permission from managers. A widely accepted formal definition of empowerment is: the process of enabling an employee to think, behave, act, react and control their work in more autonomous ways. In other words, an empowered non-managerial employee has the authority to solve problems and take action on their own, without further approval.

The idea, of course, is that if we empower employees to better serve our customers, we benefit in two important ways. First, not only does the organization become more efficient without the bureaucracy of unnecessary common sense approvals, customers benefit when we allow employees to make decisions to provide immediate response to customer needs. Makes sense, huh? But a secondary benefit is both improved morale, as employees realize they are being trusted to do the right thing, as well as communicating and reinforcing a clear company focus on serving the needs of the customer.

So what’s wrong with this picture? The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Problems with Implementation

It has been my experience that often implementation fails for a variety of reasons, but these seem to be the most common:

It starts at the top.

Regardless of the complexity of the organization, empowerment can only be effective if top management, from the CEO and throughout all layers of management, sees the value and wisdom of relinquishing some level of authority to front line employees. Unless management collectively is 100% on board – game over. In fact, worse than that, if implementation is a half-ass, say-it-but-don’t-mean-it effort, the resulting situation is likely to make things worse, not better. Why is that? Because in moving decision-making authority down to the front line employees directly in contact with our customers, we must acknowledge that occasionally mistakes will be made. Unless those mistakes are handled carefully, and as learning opportunities rather than punished as “bad”, employees will quite rightly have a fear of making decisions in the future.

For a true customer-centric culture to thrive in an organization, it must be pushed constantly by management at all levels, but through actions, not words. That means celebrating those everyday examples of great customer service, posting comments and all forms of customer feedback and congratulating individual employees and teams at every possible opportunity.

I am no savant or clairvoyant, but I would humbly suggest that I can quickly get a feel for an organization’s culture after only briefly interacting with front line employees. How do they refer to the company’s management? For me at least, if I hear the word “they” in a reference to management, and opposed to “we”, there is a problem. Of course, the entire concept of empowerment is that we don’t need to ask them for permission to take care of our customers. At every level of the organization, our job is to serve the needs of our customers, and all of us are empowered to do that. It’s a pretty simple concept: the only people who can really fire all of us are our customers. Without them, none of us have jobs. If we are not all on the same team and focused on the same thing, the we/they mentality will kill any possibility of effective empowerment.

Explain the boundaries.

From my personal experience, I have found that the biggest failures in creating an empowered workforce are not issues with unwilling or incapable employees. It’s exactly the opposite. Employees want to provide excellent service to customers. In fact, they take great pride in seeing the results of their efforts through the reaction and appreciation of a satisfied customer. Frequently the problem stems from lack of proper explanation by managers, and by that I mean the lack of plenty of examples, using situations employees would typically face in the normal course of simply doing their job. Having been told by the managers above them to make sure employees are empowered to make decisions, front line managers say things like “Do whatever it takes.” “The customer is always right.” “Go that extra mile.” Wait! What the hell does that mean, exactly?

Unless we provide lots of very specific everyday types of empowered front line decisions, employees will never understand the limits and boundaries for their decision-making authority. An easy example: I’m training a restaurant food server, and I want to explain the concept of empowerment. I might choose a simple example like a birthday observance for a customer. I would tell the server that, as soon as they realize a customer is dining with us on their birthday, the server should immediately offer a birthday greeting, and at the end of the meal should offer a complimentary dessert of the guest’s choosing. The boundaries? We would ask for other dessert orders from others in the party, but not for free! Extra spoons and forks so others can share? No problem! And we will still ring the free dessert through our point-of-sale system to ensure proper controls. But the decision to provide the dessert does not require anyone’s approval. Why should it?

Staying with the restaurant server example, what if a customer asks for a different preparation for a chicken dish not on the menu? Our immediate objective is to accommodate the request if at all possible. We simply need to check with the kitchen to ensure we have the proper ingredients. It doesn’t mean we tell the customer we need to see if “they” can do that. Rather “I’m sure we can do that for you. Let me just verify with our team.” Of course, in the majority of cases, and provided the server has been properly trained in menu knowledge and preparation methods, he or she will already know the answer and can simply honor the request without checking with anyone. So empowerment is simply assuring employees we should never deny a customer request we have the ability to properly accommodate.

But I’m not done. What do we charge the customer for Chicken Picatta, or Parisienne, or Marsala if it’s not on the menu? The answer? The server uses logic, reasoning and experience to establish the price, and the server decides. Not the restaurant manager, not the chef – the server. My explanation? “So Mary, it’s your decision. We have two other chicken items on the menu. So just decide which price you feel is more appropriate.” Seriously, how wrong can she be? Is Mary a smart, logical person? Of course! Would Mary know that if the customer asked to have his chicken topped with a lobster tail, it should cost more? Of course she would!

Training our employees by offering as many typical customer requests as possible is essential in establishing the boundaries within which we expect our employees to exercise their decision-making authority. Having trained many people in this way, I can tell you that the more examples you can provide, the better. And you will soon see that the employees “get it”. They understand the mission, and they now feel empowered to act. I emphasize that occasionally mistakes will be made and boundaries may be breached, but those are simply opportunities for learning and improvement. As long as the customer is properly taken care of, we’re going in the right direction!

Failing to set boundaries that employees understand is the quickest way to kill the entire empowerment effort. Unless they understand the rules, they simply will not feel comfortable in actually making decisions. And when they do make those decisions and customers voice their appreciation, it is a powerful reinforcement that serves to elicit similar decisions in the future.

With authority comes responsibility.

As essential element of an empowered workforce is letting every team member know that don’t just have the authority to act, they also have the responsibility. We will never admonish an employee who acted in good faith, but every employee is expected to act! Instilling that responsibility at all levels of an organization is the responsibility of management throughout the operation. Managers who walk the walk and lead by example will soon see employees who are comfortable in doing the same.

Celebrate and recognize!

Finally, this point is so important it warrants being redundant. Every day in great companies throughout this country, empowered employees are constantly making customer-centric decisions, because they are in an environment and culture, which celebrates a team approach to addressing the needs of our valued customers. When shining examples emerge, we must then take every opportunity to share them, letting everyone in the organization know that we support and celebrate them. Doing so demonstrates our commitment to both our customers and our employees.

Are your employees empowered?

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