Digital Magazine

Empowerment investment required to reap rewards.

You're now empowered is a phrase being heard around many Fortune 500 companies today.

Is it fashionable? Yes, it is. However, senior executives want to achieve the powerful results it can produce: greater customer satisfaction, reduced costs, faster and better decision making, improved pricing and increased market share.

Unfortunately, empowerment, as normally practiced, is a sham. It promises a lot, yet delivers little without significant effort and investment.

Employee empowerment isn't easy. Unless management is willing to make meaningful changes in the way it manages people, employee empowerment will go the way of the quality circles of the mid-1980s.

Empowerment seems simple to managers who haven't viewed the concept from their employees' perspective. Employees, who have never been empowered, won't know what to do. They'll likely be afraid and wonder if they'll be punished for making a wrong decision.

What does empowerment mean? It means giving the most junior employees the authority to make decisions about customer complaints, so they can be handled on the spot rather than by working through bureaucratic channels. It means allowing subordinates to solve internal problems without asking permission, so they're corrected before they get worse. It means giving managers the luxury to think through longer-term issues and assist those empowered to learn and improve, rather than direct each worker's daily activities.

Don't be seduced by the ease of empowerment. You can't just tell people they're empowered and expect them to run with it. You must make it happen.

In our review of empowerment programs, we found the most successful: * Place senior management in the shoes of those to be empowered. It's virtually impossible for empowerment to work unless senior management has the perspective of the lowest-level employee. Many companies promote such understanding by having top executives take over entry-level jobs one day a year. This exercise forces them to think through what the person who normally performs each function would require in order to be genuinely empowered.

* Promote real training for employees. If authority hasn't been delegated in the past, employees may have no clue to making decisions. They must learn, and management must provide the training.

* Actually delegate authority. Employees must be allowed to make decisions without constantly being reviewed and overruled. They should exercise their good judgement and recognize a so-called wrong decision is often no worse than no decision at all.

* Make sure employees feel comfortable with decision-making. Employees must believe their actions will be supported as long as they use common sense. They must not fear being fired or even reprimanded. But, they also must receive specific feedback to improve their decision-making abilities.

* Provide employees with the resources to solve problems. Delegating decision making won't work unless employees have the information on which to base decisions and the authority to call for assistance.

* Help middle managers facilitate, not punish. Delegation is often most threatening to the middle managers who must relinquish power. In its place, they must be given a new kind of authority - authority that involves managing subordinates' skill levels, not their decisions. They should be held responsible for improving employees' performances and rewarded accordingly. Training will be necessary to make the adjustment.

Empowerment can be a key competitive weapon. There's no magic involved, and no spell that's cast by the word itself. Empowerment isn't easy. Employees have to be shown the right way. Don't fall prey to the empowerment scare. Invest in empowerment and reap the rewards,

Arthur G. Davis is principal of A. G. Davis & Associates, a management consultancy in Chicago, IL, specializing in quality and productivity intervention.

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