Tag Archives: empowerment

The empowerment myth

A funny thing happened on the way to employee empowerment.  More sad than funny really, but here’s the truth.  It’s mainly a myth in most organizations that claim to believe in it.

A recent Dilbert cartoon cuts to heart of the disconnect between what managers say they want and how they react when employees take the initiative to do something out of the ordinary.  In a nutshell, the pointy-headed boss tells employees he wants them to act more like “entrepreneurs.”  When they ask him if they can do specific things that typify entrepreneurship, the boss says no to each question for predictable and pretentious reasons.

Let’s Get Real 
Truth is, managers are happy to see employees go above and beyond – as long as those actions don’t wander outside the cocoon of their comfort zone.  When people try to “think outside the box” or “take ownership,” command and control often rears its ugly head, and managers scramble to corral the renegades so they don’t roam too far afield.

Then guess what happens in the kind of culture when pointy-headed bosses ask employees to step up with ideas for how to make things work better?  Here are some things you’ll hear them saying:

  • They’re not really serious
  • They won’t do anything with it
  • The last time I suggested something, they said thanks but no thanks
  • No one really cares for my opinion
  • My ideas are too small to make a difference
  • It’s not my job, and I’m too busy doing my regular work
  • I might get in trouble

You get the picture – and here’s what makes the challenge even more difficult. It’s not hard to see why managers resort to command and control – and their dreaded twin, micro-management – in the first place.  It’s called survival. They need the security of predictable results in order to keep their own butts out of the sling. One slip, one bad quarter, one poor production cycle, and they’re in trouble – at least that’s what they fear.  That’s why the words and actions of employee empowerment and engagement have to be aligned and real top-down, bottom-up, middle-out and sideways.

Moving Beyond Lip Service
Getting to that level of reality takes the right mind-set, the right heart-set and the right systems and processes for imbedding effective engagement principles and practices into day-to-day operations.  The journey takes patience, persistence and trust, but the cost of sticking with command and control and micro-management can be very high indeed when you consider how employees often respond to it:

  • People are more likely to do what they’re told – right or wrong
  • They won’t take the initiative to use “good judgment”
  • They’ll rarely, if ever, offer ideas for improvement
  • They sometimes take secret pleasure in seeing things fail
  • You drive away your best talent – every time

It’s also easy to see the impact of that kind of culture on a company’s connection with the marketplace.  When employees don’t feel trusted to do the right thing on their own initiative, it deadens their drive for going the extra mile to take care of the customer.

Here’s a quote from the classic business book, The Customer Comes Second, by Hal Rosenbluth that captures that connection perfectly: “Only when people know what it feels like to be first in someone else’s eyes can they sincerely share that feeling with others.  We’re not saying choose your people over your customers.  We’re saying focus on your people first because of your customers. That way, everybody wins.”

It doesn’t get much more real than that.

If you want to learn more about how to make empowerment and engagement the “real deal” in your organization, click on the following link for a short video clip, and we’ll show you how to get there.

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I want some control, dammit.

Giving employees some control gives them confidence.
Giving employees some control gives them confidence.

A couple of years ago, my sister found out she had cancer – the same kind that took the life of Farah Fawcett. It happened about the same time, so all the media coverage on Fawcett’s death made it that much scarier for my sister. At the risk of stating the obvious, her treatment wasn’t a pleasant experience. Everyone knows about the usual stuff – hair loss, nausea, etc. But that was only half the story for her. Because of where the cancer was located she had limited control over basic bodily functions throughout the six months that she underwent her treatment.

Trying to be a helpful big brother, I told her one day that I had found some high protein drinks that would help make sure she didn’t get too weak from insufficient nutrition.  When I told her, she said, “Make sure it’s not sweet.”  She’s one of these rare people who didn’t get the sweet-tooth gene.  “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.  “I know you don’t like sweet stuff, but your life is on the line. Get over it.”

She immediately shot back at me, saying that one of the worst things about her cancer was that she had no control – no control over what she did about it, no control over the treatment or the schedule for it, no control over the outcome, no control over anything.  Everyone was telling her what to do, and that made her feel helpless and angry.

“Don’t tell me to get over it,” she said.  “The enjoyment of food is very important to me.  Some people eat to get full.  I eat to savor good food, and if I can’t control anything else in my life right now, I’m not going to give up control of eating what I like, dammit.  So I’ll tell you again, make sure it’s not sweet, or I won’t eat it.  That’s at least one thing I can still have some control over in my life.”

Employees Without Control Can’t Take Responsibility
I was mad at myself for not being sensitive to her feelings from the beginning – partly because it relates to crucial counsel we give our clients.  Her reaction speaks volumes about what fosters employee engagement – and how that ultimately affects the way a company shows up in the marketplace.  Just like my sister, employees in many companies often feel powerless because they have little control over how they do their work. Unlike my sister, though, they rarely decide to take charge of a situation and go beyond explicitly what they’re told to do. They’re more intent on following directions and “doing their job” than taking responsibility for outcomes – and for good reason. Otherwise, they might lose their job – something most people aren’t willing to risk, especially in a tough economy.

When that kind of culture takes hold, the effects are predictable.  Employees pass by obvious problems that need to be fixed, and say “That’s not my job.”  Or they know there’s a way to make things work better, and they remain silent because “No one wants to hear my opinion.”  Or a project goes bad, and everyone points their fingers at “the other guy.”

Powerless Employees Can’t Serve Customers Well
Invariably, all of that denial in the workplace makes its way outside in the marketplace.  Frustrated customers can’t get their complaints resolved because customer relations employees say things like, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”  Then the company starts losing business, and who takes the heat?  The answer usually depends on who is most adept at dodging accountability, which becomes a higher priority than producing a good outcome.

A typical management response is that employees have a “bad attitude.”  And guess what?  They’re right – but only about the behavior, not the source.  They lay the blame on employees – just short of senior management’s door where it belongs.  Truth is, crap really does roll downhill.  If attitudes stink at the bottom, it’s usually because of what got shoveled down from the top.  And if the problem is pervasive, it’s not because employees are lazy or uncaring.  It’s because taking control and “breaking the rules” to do the right thing gets punished more often than rewarded.

Managers in companies like that typically live by the old bromide that if you give employees too much control, the “inmates” will wind up running the “asylum.”  In the end, though, employees don’t want their organizations to operate like a free-for-all anymore than management does.  For the most part, they just want enough personal control over what they do and how they do it to be able to do “the right thing” when they feel it’s in everyone’s best interest.

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