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 Dilbert cartoon from several years ago 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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