For most companies, their most valuable yet underutilized resource is their people. While many business owners and managers espouse that they want their people to take more initiative and “get their skin in the game,” it’s surprising how few actually give their people the authority and support to do so.
In an empowered organization, employees take personal responsibility for the day-to-day running of the business under appropriate leadership direction. Effective leaders delegate and empower talented employees, coaching them to use discretion and good judgment when faced with obstacles and opportunities. The happiest, most satisfied and productive employees that I coach are those who are empowered and have some level of autonomy and responsibility over what they do.
Unfortunately, the notion of empowerment for many leaders is a double-edged sword. While bosses want their employees to take responsibility for getting results, they often fail to give them the necessary resources, support and decision-making authority to actually accomplish their objectives. Bosses reluctant to provide their people more autonomy often either lack confidence in themselves (or others), or have control issues.
Is there risk in delegating decision-making authority? Of course. But if you’ve got the right person with the right skills and are giving them what they need to be successful (with clear parameters), the risk should be acceptable and minimal.
Jack Welch, former GE CEO and author of “Winning” (a book I recommend), once sent out a letter to shareholders stating, “If you want to get the benefit of everything employees have … you’ve got to free them so they can make the right decisions by themselves.”
For many years, customer-service-driven Nordstrom had a one-rule employee handbook (actually, it was a 5-by-8 card) that read, “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. Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1 Use good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”
Seattle-based Nordstrom provides a great example of how to empower. From day one, employees were told they were appreciated and trusted to make good decisions. Management set clear expectations “to provide outstanding customer service.” My experience as a Nordstrom customer has been consistent. Employees have the latitude to do the right thing by the customer, and display a genuine “I care” attitude. This cultural example stands in sharp contrast to the extreme levels of micromanagement pervasive in other companies (and often poor customer service).
An option for many “traditional autocratic” companies is to act like their smaller counterparts — uncluttered, with minimal politics and mind-numbing meaningless processes. Small-company cultures tend to encourage entrepreneurial behaviors, autonomy and individual creativity toward making things happen.
What leaders can do:
- Set expectations for performance and empower employees to make decisions they need to succeed. We are all being asked to do more with less. Managers need to understand their employees need to make more decisions with less of their day-to-day involvement. Delegate with clear parameters of freedom (budget, resources, etc).
- Eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and decision-making approval processes. Remove things that get in your people’s way of doing what’s right for the business (and what you’ve asked them to do). Give them access to the information, feedback, authority and resources they need.
- Bosses are responsible for setting employee priorities and expectations. Bosses should work hard to create a culture where their employees feel safe coming to them for direction and clarification when they are overloaded or confused by competing or conflicting priorities (particularly those that come from other managers who aren’t their boss).
- Be supportive of decisions your front-line (customer contact) employees make to keep customers happy. A less-than-perfect decision resulting in a happy customer is markedly better than losing a customer because of an employee who has no power to make a decision. Don’t renege on an employee’s commitment to a customer; it’s bad for business and employee morale.
- Continually engage employees in improving how things get done in the organization. Train, teach and coach them to make bigger and better decisions without you.
- As a leader, keep your eye on the big picture versus getting mired in the small stuff. (Do you really need to approve that $100 line item?)
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