Thoughts on Empowerment

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Thoughts on Empowerment

Some ideas on ways to unleash people’s energy, commitment and creativity.


by Rick Maurer

The “knowledge worker” has begun to be synonymous with the success of organizations in the 1990s. Empowerment is key. The only way to ensure that organizations get the best thinking people have to offer, is to create an environment where people feel free to do their best work.

People are empowered when they are given the authority and responsibility to make decisions affecting their work with a minimum of interference and second guessing by others.

Empowerment is an overused and under-practiced term. When people are empowered, they bring their minds to work. They are engaged in making decisions that affect their part of the business. They take responsibility for their actions. They work free from the petty bureaucratic hassles that diminish value and waste time. They add value to the organization by embracing the principles of quality and service. They search for ways to make a difference.

Why Empowerment Is Critical

Most organizations need knowledge workers – men and women whose chief resource is their ability to think and act on what they know. Computer programmers, systems analysts, accountants, lawyers, managers, sales teams, and even factory workers must use their best judgment to solve problems and respond to opportunities.

Nordstrom is legendary in its customer service because it encourages and expects staff to make decisions that will make customers happy. A local Nordstrom store gives new staff a one-page employee handbook to illustrate this point. It reads: Use your best judgment at all times.

Why Empowerment Works

In Caught in the Middle, I suggest that most people want a few basic things from work.

  • Meaning
  • Results
  • Challenge and an opportunity to learn
  • Respect and recognition
  • Control over their own part of the work
  • Affiliation or knowing they are part of a bigger team

These six items form the foundation of all good empowerment efforts. Remove any of them and you weaken the individual’s commitment to his or her work. Fortunately, with regard to motivation, what’s good for the individual is also good for the company.

Making Empowerment Work

Build on the Six Motivators. Consider these items as a bedrock for all initiatives to increase empowerment. In addition, consider the following:

Clear Vision and Direction. Corporate leadership must know why it wants empowerment.

  • What do you want to achieve from it?
  • What would empowerment look like here?
  • How committed are you to making empowerment a reality? (Is it essential or simply something that would be nice to have?)

Examine Corporate Actions.

Policies. What gets rewarded gets done. What gets punished gets avoided. Corporate policies and procedures such as performance review and merit increases show people what is really important to senior management. For example, if people are told to work collaboratively but their performance reviews pit them against each other in forced appraisal ranking, people will protect their own self-interests. If you encourage cross-functional teamwork, but performance reviews only acknowledge work accomplished within a department, interdepartmental cooperation will suffer.

Unwritten Rules. These norms tell people how the game is played. People learn that these unwritten rules are as important as any written policy. For example, a manager may tell staff to always tell him or her the truth, but proceed to punish the messenger who brings the bad news.

Structure. To borrow a phrase from David Hanna’s book, “Organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.” NUMMI is a highly successful auto manufacturing plant that relies on high worker commitment and skill. It replaced a terrible GM plant in which absenteeism was running at 25% the year it closed and where quality was a joke. Ironically, when NUMMI opened, it hired back many of the same seemingly unmotivated workers from the old plant. The only major difference between NUMMI and its predecessor was how it was managed. People were free to stop the assembly line to solve quality problems. They were encouraged to learn many different tasks so they could add greater value to the assembly process. In short, they were empowered.

Why Is It So Difficult to Achieve?

Tom Peters once said, “We are only at the advanced lip service stage.” I agree. We often are afraid to trust that others will actually do the work without close scrutiny. I never met anyone who said that a rigorous performance appraisal system helped him or her do better work. Yet most managers believe that it is an essential tool to use to motivate others. (If only those other people were as trustworthy as we.)

Watchful eyes breed dependency. When people try to please mom and dad they fail to take the risks and initiative needed to help a dynamic organization thrive. People wait to be told what to do. As the sign in a French civil servant’s office read, “Never do anything for the first time.”

If your work is going to be reviewed, folded, spindled, and mutilated by five others up the line before it is approved, why bother giving your best effort?

Our view of organizations is based on hierarchy and chain of command. People above you make the decisions, people below carry them out. This model is firmly entrenched. Sometimes I think it is encoded in our DNA. It can only change when we see that it works against initiative and empowerment, and when we are willing to step back and take a cold sober look at the ways in which our own actions may be creating the dependency and lackluster performance we abhor.

There Is Hope

There is a revolution going on in corporations. Since Peters and Waterman’s watershed book, In Search of Excellence and our discovery of W. Edwards Deming in the early 1980’s, organizations have been experimenting with ways to increase employee involvement. Even the federal government is trying to reinvent itself using principles of empowerment. Some organizations succeed, others fail – but we can learn from them all. These brave companies and agencies are providing the living textbooks that can point the way to new models of organization that treat people with dignity and respect — and serve the interests of the business.

Here are some examples of how others are using the principles of empowerment.

Large System Change. Organizations such as Corning get everyone (or at least a representative sample of all levels of the organization) in a room to reengineer their portion of company. Since this planning process involves those who must implement the changes, resistance decreases and commitment increases, planning and implementation time are compressed, and the quality of the plan often far exceeds what outside consultants or a small team could have created.

Cross-functional Teams. Companies such as Conrail pull together talented people from the middle of the organization and empower them to tackle pressing business challenges. These teams are more than task forces; they have the power to recommend and implement change.

Access to Information. Many organizations are examining how work is done in an effort to streamline service to customers. They develop new procedures that ensure the people closest to the work have immediate access to the tools and information they need. (In traditional organizations, information is power and often kept away from those who need it most.)

Promote the Best. The best management book of 1991 was General Electric’s 1991 Annual Report. In it, Jack Welch introduced his theory of leadership. GE needs people who keep commitments (meet deadlines and financial targets) as well as people who promote the values of the company (empowerment, etc.). In the past, they only gave lip service to the values goal. It was nice, but it didn’t drive promotions. To get ahead you had to meet the numbers. Welch went on record as saying those days were over. He wanted men and women who could accomplish both goals. To prove his resolve, he timed the firing of some visible old-line managers with the publication of the report.

To Begin the Conversation

Here are a few random questions to begin a conversation on empowerment.

  • Do we agree that empowerment is a key ingredient in our continued success? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • Does our performance review process support or hinder participation and commitment of all staff?
  • Do we compensate and promote those who embody the values we espouse?
  • Do our communication channels promote or inhibit free exchange of information and ideas between individuals and departments?
  • What informal messages do people receive about our culture? What impact does this have on productivity and morale?
  • What do we suppose employees say about our organization when we aren’t in the room?
  • Once people are trained and have proven their competency, do we have the courage to trust them?
  • What happens when someone takes an educated risk and fails?

Of course the list could go on, but these should be sufficient to begin a provocative dialogue on the subject.