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Jeff Dewar

Quality Insider

Teaching Managers to Empower

It begins with the belief that those who support you often contribute more to quality than you

Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 - 14:40

The Baldrige Performance Excellence Program includes employee empowerment as an integral part of its criteria. The word “empower,” or one of its derivatives, appears seven times in the criteria in reference to workforce development, yet it remains one of the most elusive elements to embrace.

In what may seem a contradiction, it was Gen. George Patton who was one of the most outspoken champions of his era about empowerment, embodied in this famous quote:

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
—Gen. George Patton

His very simple guideline was to focus on the half of the assignment that counts the most when giving direction: What to do. And at times partially or wholly withdraw from the second half: How to do it. By definition he was empowering his subordinates, and in turn setting an example for them to follow.

Gen. George Patton

When he was questioned about his philosophy, he clarified (and this is what opponents of empowering always fail to grasp) that you don’t just abandon “the how,” you simply back away from immediately telling subordinates how to execute. You might ask them to come back with options and recommendations, which give you additional decision-making or counseling opportunities. One of those points may result in you saying to your team, “It’s up to you—you decide.” Or there may be cases where your trust in the team is sufficiently high (on multiple levels of technical ability, analysis, and planning) that you tell them they “own the process,” and there’s no need to check back with you, so they run with it.

Why have there been so many failed attempts at employee empowerment? Because it is generally treated in a touchy-feely fashion, without definition and guidelines for daily use. Lower-level managers in particular find it difficult to empower their teams because they don’t trust their team to handle the situation with wisdom, care, and quality; and they hold to a belief that is the utter antithesis of empowerment, exemplified in one of the most depressing sayings we’ve all heard:

“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

Empowerment 101

So let’s start with the basics. What is empowerment? In its simplest form, it is taking some of your power and transferring it to someone else that in some way supports your efforts. This is not “responsibility” pushed downward.

In writing this article, I presume we are all well-versed in the ancient argument that responsibility without authority is meaningless, and that authority without responsibility is mischief in the making. Furthermore, it does not mean you transfer power without being reasonably confident that the empowered know what to do with it. For example, I empower my kids all the time, but only to the degree that I know they can handle. I remember a boss of mine many years ago who “empowered” me to take over a project. To put it mildly, I was not ready for it on either a technical or contract proceedings basis. A big problem for me, and ultimately for him, too.

The essence of empowerment is not a “feel good” program of managing people (although it’s commonly accepted that bosses who empower end up with teams with better attitudes). Rather, it’s about speed, quality, and productivity. Jack Welch of GE said it better than anyone back in 1994:

“A company’s and country’s success is tied to productivity. I believe that the companies and the countries that win in the decade and century ahead will be those that get more output for less input. To be the best in everything you do, you have to engage and involve every mind in your enterprise. The old command-and-control structures built around military structures of the past don’t engage every mind and involve every person. You have to have a fluid, boundary-free organization.”

The simple truth is that a manager can produce more, faster, and with greater flexibility with an empowered team, than by a top-down, rigid structure. Now, to be fair, during the last 50 years, industry in general has made great progress in the area of empowerment, mostly driven by a common-sense acknowledgement that it’s a necessary part of the productivity game, and to a lesser extent, the suspicion that managers who empower tend to work fewer hours, and deal with fewer hassles.

So how do you create a culture of empowerment where bosses are continuously asking themselves, “Could this power I’m exercising be transferred?”

Create symbols of empowerment

The typical employee handbook looks something like the one here.

I have seen employee handbooks with pages numbering into the hundreds, and they are worse now, since most of them are published online and can be essentially limitless. Of course there are many good reasons for employee handbooks: a desire to consolidate all employee-related information in one place, anticipating any and all possible circumstances where the company might be at risk, and of course abiding by government regulations. As my colleagues in human resources say, “If it’s not on paper (or a web page), it doesn’t exist.”

However, retailer Nordstrom, with nearly $9 billion in sales and 200-plus stores, is famous for the employee handbook it has published for many years. It is a 5 in. × 7 in. card with this on the front:

Welcome to Nordstrom
We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them. So our employee handbook is very simple. We have only one rule…


Then, on the flip side:

Our only rule: Use good judgment in all situations.
Please feel free to ask your Department Manager, Store Manager, or Human Resource office any question at any time.

When it comes to empowering employees to serve customers, Nordstrom, in philosophy and practice, is among the top examples. Its customer service is legendary.

Now, what about all the rules, the benefits, the disciplinary procedures? Do they not exist? Of course they do—in other manuals—lean and streamlined, mind you. But with a nod to creating the right culture, one of service, the company simply says that the essence of the employee handbook is about employee judgment. Nordstrom understands the power of symbols.

A specific line item

A good friend of mine, a business school professor in South Africa, loved explaining to his bright-eyed MBA students the centrality of measurement in both product engineering and organizational engineering. He loved quoting the famous American gangster, Al Capone:

“You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.”

His somewhat brutally expressed point was that measurement, in the form of the performance appraisal, captures one’s attention, including the most stubborn of managers. When just a kind word and endless coaching doesn’t pry a stubborn manager away from control and into the world of empowerment, you may need the reinforcement of the performance appraisal.

I have seen two performance appraisal systems that had 25 percent of their weight dedicated to how well the manager effectively deployed empowerment. Yes, it got the attention of everyone who was caught up in its dragnet. In one case, it was just the push that one manager needed to get off the fence and actually give some thought to empowerment. For another manager, a true holdout of a bygone era, it literally forced her to empower a team desperate to perform at a higher level. And like a freshly minted ex-smoker with an uncompromising attitude toward smokers, she became the sharpest critic of those who would not develop and empower their employees.

One performance appraisal system asked the manager to provide three specific examples of empowerment, their structure, and their results, and that response was compared to the responses requested of that manager’s employees. Wow. If both were in approximate agreement, the manager received an excellent score. If the manager’s examples were from Venus and the team’s were from Mars, well, there was a perception gap that needed to be addressed.

The 360° performance appraisal where you rate your team, your peers, your boss, and (wisely) yourself, has been used for many years. Yet most fail to include specific line items of how well your boss empowers—and offer examples of how this took place.

The bottom line is that the performance appraisal process can be used to help managers from above and below.

Final thought

Doing a Google search of the phrase “how to empower employees” yielded nearly six million results, implying that there’s no shortage of lists like “10 Keys to Empowering Employees.” However, those are external tactics, and although they can be quite helpful, they are only as effective as the depth of belief held by the manager about the value of empowerment. True empowerment comes from an internal belief that in many areas those who support you can do better than you. And that’s strategic.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War


About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.


A Magician's Rod

There's no such a thing; just the same, managers can't be taught how to empower employees. Certainly, managers can learn how to reduce their own side effects on employees empowerment, just the same as one learns to drive cars and gets a driving licence. But this does not mean he'll be a Formula One or Indy or Rally driver. You quote Patton, good: Victor D. Hanson also quotes Epaminondas and Sherman as positive benchmarks, and Alexander (the Great) as a negative benchmark. A manager is a manager is a manager: his or her psychological subtleties, labyrinths, intricate conducts are often severe impediments to effective relationship with the employees, let alone to empower them. And when the often-encountered inferior shouts "the emperor is naked!", well, that's a real beginning: of the End. We keep mending organizational cloths with techniques; the word "art" is however more and more often used: maybe we'll have to look for "management artists", or "management designers", to wear really new organizational cloths. Thank you.