#586  Innovative Leader                          Volume 12, Number 10                  October 2003

Empowerment is a Leadership Trick!
by Chip R. Bell and Bilijack R. Bell

Chip R. Bell manages the Dallas office of Performance Research Associates.  Bilijack R. Bell is an associate with Atlanta-based Wilson, Hull & Neal.  Their website is www.magneticservice.com.  They are the authors of Magnetic Service:  Secrets for Creating Passionately Devoted Customers (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2003).  

Empowerment!  The word is spoken with apprehension by most leaders.  What races through their heads are scary images of “employees giving away the store” and “bosses giving up control.”  Some employees want more of it; some want to be told what to do and not worry after five o’clock. 

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 say.  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.  Employees were reassured, however, that the world as they 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.  Just as leaders struggle with “close encounters of the empowerment kind,” employees also labor to test the outer limits of authority.  Like Joe, everyone wants to do the right thing.  And, like Joe, employees and leaders risk missing the point.

What is Empowerment…Really?

Empowerment is insuring employees closest to a problem or need have the authority to make judgments on how the problem is solved or the need met.  Empowerment does not mean unlimited license...”just do whatever you need to do.…”  It means responsible freedom.  It means employees who balance the freedom to go the extra mile for the customer with the responsibility of taking care of the organization.  It means thinking and acting more like an owner, and not like a brainless slave who simply “does what he or she is told.”  Organizations can no longer afford front-line people reluctant to use their full capacity at work.  Cop out behind, “I just did what I was told,” or “Just tell me what to do,” and everyone loses.       

Empowerment is not a gift bestowed by a benevolent leader.  Leaders don’t GIVE power.  Power already exists in the employee.  The job of the leader is to release power...that is, to remove the barriers that keep employees from acting with power.   Empowerment is a partnership in focused energy and ‘go the extra mile’ enthusiasm. 

How does Empowerment Work?

Empowerment works when leaders examine the work environment and to identify barriers getting in the way of responsible freedom.  Below are four barriers that are frequent culprits in organizations, along with a few tips on how leaders can eliminate each barrier.

No Purpose.  We all work smarter when we feel a part of an important mission.  We also 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.”  Purpose or mission provide a focus on the cathedral-building mission, not just the brick-laying task. 

FedEx chairman Fred Smith reminds FedEx employees of their purpose or mission: “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.”

No Protection.  Empowerment begins with error!  Employees quickly learn if they are empowered when they make a mistake.   If the error is met with rebuke, it sends a very different message than if the leader sees error as an opportunity for learning and problem solving. 

Without risk, there’s no learning or creativity.  With risk, there are occasional honest mistakes.  “Empowering is trusting,” says one senior manager.  “The greater the trust, the greater the freedom; but, freedom comes with responsibility.”  The leader’s job is to coach employees to feel more and more comfortable with more and more responsibility. 

No Permission.  Empowerment involves guidelines, not unlimited license.  The leader who says, “Just go do whatever you think is best,” is probably demonstrating abdication, not empowerment.  And, the employee who assumes, “I can do whatever I like,” is demonstrating rebelliousness, not empowerment.   Flexibility is important since customers want to be treated unique.  But, flexibility has limits. 

No Proficiency.  “Knowledge is power,” said philosopher Francis Bacon.   Learning, not once but constantly, provides wisdom, not just competence.  And whereas competence promotes confidence, wisdom fosters power.   Building competence can involve gaining information about the organization--long-range goals, strategies, competitor information.

Empowerment is earned through knowledge.  Early on there’s frustration as employees want to start ‘running things’ and ‘don’t know what they don’t know.’  The leader has to take the time to ‘grow’ employees.  This takes openness so both parties can ask questions, discuss issues and share thoughts.  Unless it’s a crisis, the employee needs the chance to work through issues and learn from experience. 

What are the Cautions?

Empowerment is a never-ending journey.  Often, employees and leaders feel impatient with how long it takes.  As employees learn the business, leaders will feel more comfortable entrusting them with decisions and letting go; employees will feel more comfortable assuming greater responsibility.  Customers will be more satisfied; employees more well-rounded, leaders able to focus on bigger picture issues, and the journey becomes a worthwhile trip.

Many employees have their challenges with empowerment.  Overzealous front-line employees can make decisions without the experience or competence to do so.   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 didn’t pan out.  Employees 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 that can be harnessed when barriers to responsible freedom are eliminated and employees are encouraged to think like owners.  Employee morale climbs, burnout is reduced, leaders feel responsibility shared, and profits soar as customers rave about the organization full of value, joy...and, power!

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