Empowerment — Fuhgetaboutit

Discussion
Apr 29, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson

It’s one of those words you hear all the time from executives and employee motivation gurus — empowerment.

The idea behind the word is simple. Give employees the authority to make decisions and personal responsibility and creativity will bloom.

The reality, however, rarely matches the rhetoric. Oh, it’s not that employees aren’t responsible or able to come up with innovative solutions to business issues. Instead, writes Lior Arussy in The Power to Serve (Customer Relationship Management, May 2005), most companies are unwilling to truly empower employees because sometimes people make mistakes.

As one person said in a consulting session with Mr. Arussy, president of Strativity Group and author of Passion & Profitable: Why Customer Strategies Fail and 10 Steps to Do Them Right, “In our company we are all empowered…to make right decisions.”

The need to be right all the time, writes the author, means that many shy away from making any decisions at all.

There are also personal obstacles to creating empowered organizations.

For one, many managers believe that giving more autonomy to direct reports diminishes their authority. According to Mr. Arussy, “They view authority as a zero-sum game — the more they give, the less they have.”

Employees too, do not always want the responsibility that comes with being empowered to make decisions. Risk-aversion is strongly ingrained in many companies and individuals.

Ultimately, developing a truly empowered business team means embracing change and being willing to make mistakes.

For companies seeking to match the reality to their empowerment rhetoric, Mr. Arussy offers this advice. “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…”

“Mistakes are the result of employees who take risks — the types of risks that will lead to excellence and breakthrough,” he writes. “Do not crush that spirit, embrace it.”

Moderator’s Comment: Is employee empowerment all it’s cracked up to be? Do empowered organizations perform better than those that are not? What companies
in retail and related businesses best exemplify the empowered organization? How is this demonstrated in their corporate culture and business practices?

George Anderson – Moderator

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15 Comments on "Empowerment — Fuhgetaboutit"


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Ian Percy
Guest
15 years 10 months ago
A theologian once said, “We don’t know if Christianity works or not. No one’s really tried it.” Well, very few have actually tried ’empowerment’ either. First, empowerment is pointless in the absence of a clearly defined purpose. What businesses call ‘vision’ or ‘mission’ is usually superficial mush and does not unite and excite the employees. Walk into any retail store and ask a salesperson what the vision of the store is and you’ll get a blank stare. “Sell as much as you can” wears thin as a life purpose after awhile. Purpose always comes before passion, performance and profitability. Second, when managers fear diluting their ‘power’ they are really talking about losing ‘force’. The universal principle of reciprocity comes into play – whatever you want you must first give away. That applies to things like trust, love, respect and it also applies to power. Give people authentic power and they’ll give it back to you a thousand times over. Managers (as distinct from leaders) don’t get this message because the idea of “giving up control”… Read more »
Tom Zatina
Guest
Tom Zatina
15 years 10 months ago

A few key points come to mind when speaking about empowerment:

1. Being empowered to make everyday operating decisions and being empowered to bet the ranch are two different things. There should not be an expectation for people to make decisions that are beyond their scope of insight and understanding.

2. Their must be alignment between the decision makers and the key principles and operating philosophy of the company and its leaders.

3. Before a company empowers its people, it has an obligation to invest some time and money in getting them to a baseline level of understanding about the business, how it works and share any “rules” of empowerment.

4. Empowering people to always make only the “correct” decision is fantasy. They should, however, be expected to make the best decision possible based on all the facts and available information.

When done well, truly empowered groups should make more decisions and pull more (positive) results forward than organizations made up of people and groups that are too scared to move.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
15 years 10 months ago

Empowerment really does work. The problem is the majority of retailers and managers either don’t understand it or trust it. For empowerment to work there first must be training and education. Since the majority of retailers never invest in real training, they are unlikely to a have successful empowerment program. Without education, the result is chaos. Stores with different customer service policies are a recipe for disaster. Second is management. Unless management is encouraged to allow associates to make decisions, there is no empowerment.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 10 months ago
The article pretty much says it all. Those organizations that allow people to make decisions, right, wrong or indifferent based on the situation confronting them in the moment will likely provide better customer service, and have happy and productive employees. There is, however, far too much fear of failure for most organizations to truly permit it. There are so many management initiatives based on theoretical notions that work; but are so seldom implemented in an ideal way, that they fail. And it is that failure that dooms them moving forward. “See, it didn’t work.” This is one of the most important ones. On the other hand, in the retail universe, too often the people on the front line are also not trained to make good decisions – they’re barely trained to do the job when they have no authority. Any company that hopes to “empower” employees has to, first of all, actually do it, without second-guessing them every moment, and secondly train them in making the decisions that will most often be “right” according to… Read more »
Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
15 years 10 months ago

If you’re going to empower people, make a commitment to do it all the way. This means, not only giving them the responsibility for decision-making, but mentoring them, guiding them and not slapping them around when they make mistakes.

Laurie Cozart
Guest
Laurie Cozart
15 years 10 months ago

Empowerment is risky for most managers, especially in retail. It’s a risk most are not willing to take. I agree that some managers don’t empower their people because of ego and control issues, and some employees balk at taking on responsibility. But I feel there is another reason as well.

Most people are never taught good decision making skills. Did you ever have a class that taught you how to choose well? The security of the status quo and not getting fired is far more seductive and compelling than experimentation, personal development and telling the truth.

Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
15 years 10 months ago

I always think of two companies that I believe empower their employees, Nordstom and Hy-Vee. I may be deceived, but I have always thought that they empower their managers to make whatever decisions are necessary to take care of their customers and give great service. In Nordstrom’s case, it goes down to the department managers. I’m not sure about Hy-Vee. Publix may be another, based on their service levels and employee attitudes.

Jeremy Frank
Guest
Jeremy Frank
15 years 10 months ago

Empowerment….Equipment….Encouragement. There has to be a 3-dimensional approach. As a manager, if I empower my employees to make decisions but offer no training or encouragement to do so, I am setting them up for failure.

A truly empowered organization is a breeding-ground for future managers, Vice Presidents and CEO’s. By operating this way, you create ownership within the company, develop solid decision-makers, and foster an atmosphere of inevitable success.

As employees develop, you empower them with making bigger decisions, equip them with the knowledge to decide with confidence, and encourage them tirelessly to not fear failure. They will learn twice as much from a failure as they will from their greatest success.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 10 months ago

Turn it upside down. Instead of defining “empowerment” as permission for an employee to make a “downward” decision (vis-à-vis subordinates or customers), we should see it as the opportunity to make an “upward” contribution to company plans.

Most low-level decision opportunities are already codified in manuals and rule books. Those so-called “decisions” have already been made. True employee empowerment is soliciting their input regarding marketing, profitability, service, and all other aspects of the business. Some will be risk-averse and decline to opine, while others will step forward with both smart and dumb ideas. This “self-selection” or “self-definition” is true empowerment. Employees can choose to participate or not, while following the rules on day-to-day operations.

Don Delzell
Guest
Don Delzell
15 years 10 months ago
Empowerment, like any other complex system, works only as well as alignment within each aspect of that system. Here’s my experience on empowerment, far too often: “I trust you. Make this happen. Let me know if you need help (but I’ll be disappointed if you do because I hired you so I wouldn’t have to deal with this).” Almost never does the organization ask itself crucial and pertinent questions: 1. Has this person actually demonstrated behaviors consistent with those aligned with success in this position/task/project? (And please, we are NOT talking about potential.) 2. Are the tools in place to allow this person and the team to be successful? 3. What skill set or knowledge gap exists which can be bridged through training or education? 4. Are there any processes or procedures in the organization that would mitigate against empowerment? 5. Is this act of empowerment consistent across the enterprise? (Is this a counter-cultural effort?) True empowerment involves understanding the organization as an organic entity. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Seldom are answers simple. Most… Read more »
Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 10 months ago
For myself, when I had my own company, everyone had the freedom to fail. During the very brief part of my career when I was employed by another company, it was pretty much a matter of being empowered to make the right decisions. The former definitely lead to a closer knit, more cooperative and creative team with members who felt pride and ownership in everything we did (and I had a great deal of pride in everyone who was involved). The latter, which included all of the same people who worked with me plus lots more who didn’t know any of us, were far less sure of themselves and far more worried about watching their backs. It was not a happy atmosphere. To respond more broadly to the question, however, I would say that organisations not encouraging decision and risk taking amongst employees, or encouraging managers to pass that attitude on down the line, are more likely to have problems with staff than those organisations who encourage thinking and contributions from one and all. Empowerment… Read more »
Christopher Fink, CMC
Guest
Christopher Fink, CMC
15 years 10 months ago

Empowerment is a double-edged sword: When sharpened on both edges, it helps organizations cut-through the distractions to drive profitable growth at retail.

For employees, it’s about “adding value”: Approaching their responsibilities with the attitude of an owner, determined to complete assigned tasks, find solutions to problems and serve customers in ways that meet and exceed the basics required for the job.

For employers, it’s about establishing the enabling business processes and providing basic resources and sound supervision to facilitate employees exceeding basic job requirements.

If employees fail to take the initiative and/or employers stymie initiative with complicated procedures, scarce resources and controlling supervisors, then empowerment becomes a hollow phrase that serves to sharpen organization cynicism.

John Hennessy
Guest
John Hennessy
15 years 10 months ago

Forget up and down and tiers and levels. If an organization punishes failure at any level, it punishes itself.

BERNARD HINDEN
Guest
BERNARD HINDEN
15 years 10 months ago

Being a 100% ESOP company, we have developed an executive group of concerned [managers] and innovative group of owner associates. Being a 15 year mature company, we have achieved growth profitability and a loyal, stable staff of partners in success.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 10 months ago

I came back to scan the answers to this thread and found myself chuckling through the whole thing. It would seem that all of us who feel empowerment is not only a good thing, but possible, given the right environment, are working independently. It would seem the only way we were able to empower ourselves is to work for ourselves. Maybe it doesn’t work after all.

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