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January 2007

The "E" Word

Empowerment is a lot more than just giving an employee the keys.

Written by Nicole Voth, Mountain Performance Consulting | 0 comment

Empowerment is the buzzword of the decade, so why so much angst and uncertainty? Empowerment is a straightforward concept that suffers complications of interpretations. Webster’s Dictionary defines empower as “to give official authority.” Empowerment is also used in reference to increasing the political, social and economic strength of individuals and communities.

In the workplace, empowerment is often defined as giving employees greater resources and discretion: delegating control and power in order to better serve the guest. At its best, empowered individuals develop confidence in their own capacities, and, at its worst, the empowered are pawns of those endowing ‘empowerment.’ The dilemma of the complexity in empowerment is in what you believe. Do you believe power is given or do you believe power is taken? Or, are you like me, and believe both?

Management guru, Ken Blanchard says, “…managers who define empowerment as ‘the manager giving power to the people’ still regard the manager as controller and miss the essential point: namely, that people already possess a great deal of power—power that resides in their knowledge, experience, and internal motivation…” Yes, we are all gifted with knowledge, experience and internal motivation, and usually we are free to apply our talents at will for the benefit of all. However, most workplaces aren’t a democracy (let’s not get started on unionization…). We don’t get to take power where none was given, and power given can be easily taken away. This is where the confusion comes in; empowerment as freedom to act.

Managers are afraid if they “empower” employees that in a state of frenzied freedom, the employees will fail to apply their knowledge, experience and internal motivation and will proceed to “give away the house.” The act of empowering your employees is also sometimes difficult because you’ve worked hard to be in your position of power. The old adage holds true, “those in power will rarely give it up voluntarily.” Employees like the benefits of empowerment and desire freedom from the “management microscope” but are quick to shrug off the consequences of their decisions, and they are often disillusioned to realize that being empowered means more than just showing up.

There is a cost of empowerment and a price to freedom. It adds up to a key ingredient in empowerment: shared accountability and responsibility for outcomes. So let’s think about empowerment as: leadership by guiding others to lead themselves so they can be less dependent on you. Empowerment is really a result of your management style.

The Crucial Elements of Empowerment
Empowerment doesn’t just happen; you can’t just one day announce to staff, “Congratulations, you are all empowered now. Have a super day!” Actually, I take it back. That example is representative of how empowerment is often implemented. No wonder folks are reluctant to use the E-word! In reality, it takes a lot of thought, effort, planning and communication to reap the benefits of empowerment.

Reciprocal Trust, Respect and Loyalty
If you don’t believe in, trust and respect your staff (or your boss) stop right here; empowerment is not for you. It’s OK, really. Empowerment isn’t possible for everyone. In fact, the workplace that is marked by reciprocal trust, respect and loyalty is quite rare and special. If the concept and benefits of empower­ment appeal to you but you lack these three traits, rope up and start climbing. Your task is to find out why these things are missing in your organization, and fix it...does anyone have a mirror I can use?

Sharing Information
Nobody goes to work to fail, but that can change fast. Lack of information and resources is one of the fastest ways to demotivate (and unempower) your staff. Most employee ambivalence comes from the perception that the organization doesn’t care. The empowerment gurus say the first step to an empowered organization is to share information so employees feel a greater stake and ownership in the success of the company. Let’s take it a few steps further and share resources, but, first things first.

Long before your staff can feel pride and ownership in organizational outcomes, they need a few things to occur. They need basic information and options about the products and services they represent. Yes, training is sharing information. The most bang for your buck in training is to provide the information and resources which will make them successful in their job. What do they need to know right away, what tools do they need, what should they be able to do so they can do their job?

An Increase in Consciousness and Will
An empowered workplace requires a considerable increase in communication, thought and effort for everyone.

• Attention managers! Have you staffed your organization with an eye toward independent thought, decision making and judgment calls? Are you modeling these behaviors for your staff?

• Attention employees! You’ve taken a position with a company that does things a little differently; they expect you to actually think and make decisions at work. Is this the right place for you?

Autonomy Through Boundaries
Here is where the rubber meets the road. They have the information and resources. You’ve got their attention and consciousness. Are they free now to act according to their own judgment, damn the consequences? It depends on a number of factors:

• Level of staff—the more senior the staff member, the greater autonomy you can expect.

• Tenure of staff—resorts are more likely to empower a returning staff member who knows the ropes, as opposed to a first year employee.

• Complexity of work processes—are we talking about a ticket refund, or cutting a new section of trails on the hill?

• Expense impact—is it an issue of a hot cocoa coupon, or comped lodging?

• Size of staff—the smaller the staff, the greater levels of autonomy are plausible.

Shared Responsibility for Outcomes
Mistakes will be made. One of my greatest delights in parenthood is when I observe my daughters doing a newly-learned task all by themselves—the pride, joy and independence they display makes my heart just hum. Leading is so much like parenting. It requires that we accept responsibility for total performance—the best and the worst. If I’ve done my job as a leader they will be successful even under the most challenging of circumstances. When they fail or make a mistake, I know I missed something. Somehow, in some way I failed to prepare them adequately, give them the correct information and support their progress.

Real empowerment at work means giving employees the information they need to make decisions about a role, task, project, or activity and the authority to act without having to go to a supervisor or manager. It also means being in their corner when the results are unexpected.

Why Does Empowerment Fail?
Have you ever made these statements?

• “You are empowered as long as you don’t make a decision that isn’t covered in the policy manual.”

• “Before you make any decisions, ask me.”

• “What were you thinking? Why did you make that decision?”

We said it earlier; empowerment just isn’t for everyone. It is a rare organization that can really pull it off. Here are some of the common causes for empowerment gone wrong.

• Lip service—no real power is transferred, you’ve confused delegation with empowerment.

• Employee capability—do they have the aptitude for the decision making and thought processes required?

• Employee capacity—do they have enough time for additional activities and decision making?

• Backlash—when they make a mistake, how is it handled? Do you have their back?

Why Do It?
Are you empowering others so that they may perform better in their jobs or so the company performs better? Most of the time it’s the latter: we empower to address guest satisfaction issues in real time and the resolutions predict positive company performance. But, an exciting and tangible benefit of empowerment is enhanced staff skills and attitude.

Employees entrusted with new responsibilities are stretched beyond what they previously thought they could achieve. This paves the way for unleashing their individual wisdom, creativity and energy. Equally important, employee empowerment modifies the managers’ mind-set and leaves them with more time to engage in strategic thinking, visioning, and planning activities.

In its fullest scope the benefits of empowerment come full cycle. Invest in empowerment, develop the staff, please the guest, the guest returns, the company profits, the company reinvests, and the staff gains greater opportunity to apply their new skills. How great is that?