This is part 9 of a 10 part “how to” series covering the points in the infographic below.
I can hear the rally cry now, proclaimed by well-intentioned executives bent on improving customer relations and employee morale:
“We’re going to empower our employees to go above and beyond for our customers!”
So let it be decreed… and POOF! Employees are now empowered.
Not so fast.
No one that I know of has ever acted empowered just because they were told they were empowered. There’s a wee bit more too it than that.
Let’s start with the “why”. Why did Mr. or Mrs. Bigshot declare open season on employee empowerment? As I said above, they meant well. Chances are that there was a desire to streamline a process… perhaps it was the guest comment or complaint procedure… maybe it had to do with processing a return… or maybe it was so when something went haywire, their front line employees would be able to handle it and spare the guest the further inconvenience of having to trudge up to guest services to have their problem resolved. Lastly, it could also be to encourage random acts of kindness – want to do something nice just because… go for it – you’re empowered to make that decision.
In my experience, what DIDN’T happen after the “why” was fully examined, was to determine “HOW” this was going to happen. It was assumed since management was lying down the empowerment gauntlet, that eager and willing employees were going to jump at the chance to pick it up. That they were just chomping at the bit to do all these wonderful things and were just waiting for permission from the powers that be.
Permission is part of it, but it ain’t all of it. Sadly, this is where many people stop, and wonder why they employees aren’t acting as empowered as they should.
So let’s turn that around. Let’s dive into HOW we empower employees so they will actually feel and act empowered.
Did you see what I did there? I inserted a word we haven’t discussed yet. Feel. First an employee has to feel that they actually ARE empowered in order to act that way.
Uh oh… we gotta talk about feelings again? Good gravy.
Afraid so. No matter what age, nationality, ethnic background or chosen NFL affiliation, all human beings are wired in much the same way. Our actions are based on how we feel. Are you feeling like you are learning something from this post? If so, you’ll keep reading. If not, it doesn’t really matter what I type here because you are long gone. (If you are still here – thank you!)
This is why the decree of empowerment alone does not inspire actions. There are still too many variables in play that the employees have questions about. For example:
- What am I empowered to do? You said I could go above and beyond. Above and beyond what and how far above and how far beyond? Who can I ask if I need help? Meh. It’s too confusing. Forget it.
- How do I do this? Is there a form to fill out? A procedure? An app? In what situations would I empower my empowerment? My manager said one thing, but the guy next to me said something else. Meh. It’s too confusing. Forget it.
- Am I going to get in trouble? If I’m giving stuff away or letting people break the rules, aren’t I going to get in trouble? It was reinforced and reiterated how important our rules are, so I’m not sure what’ll happen if I decide that one isn’t so important. Meh. It’s too confusing. Forget it.
If you’ve struggled with empowerment in the past, this should give you a quick-start guide for revamping your initiatives:
- Be clear about WHAT sort of things they are empowered to do
- Be specific about the procedure or steps to take so employees get comfortable with doing something outside of their comfort zone
- Explain (and live by) what will happen when an employee takes on the challenge of doing something out of the ordinary. (Praise the effort, even if the execution needs adjusting)
For clarity, I should mention that in many cases, there won’t be a specific blueprint for employees to follow every time they want to go above and beyond or do something special. If there were, it would be called a Standard Operating Procedure and it would be part of their everyday routine. We do have to set guidelines and expectations at first to get people thinking in a way that it’s okay to step outside of the norm and do the extraordinary, but the ultimate goal should be about developing their decision-making skills.
Because that’s what empowered employees do, and it’s what Mr. and Mrs. Bigshot WANT empowered employees to do… make decisions that will have a positive impact on the situation.
To encourage these decisions, it will be important to constantly reinforce not only that you WANT them to make these decisions, but again you have to make them feel good about making them (so THEY’LL want to). This process takes time, encouragement, guidance and patience on your part. Talk to employees about scenarios where different decisions could be made, and walk through the possible outcomes. Encourage them to try different things to see how they work, and follow-up with them on their progress. Continue to encourage experimentation while you praise the effort of stepping outside their comfort zone, even if the action wasn’t exactly what you envisioned.
Let me take a quick side journey at this point… when you truly empower people to make decisions, and give them the latitude to do so, it’s imperative that you prepare yourself for a time when they could do something so off the wall it might make your head spin. People are funny like that. Give them opportunities to actually use their brains, and they might surprise you. I would contend that as much as that surprise might make you cringe, there is also a chance that they could come up with an incredible idea or solution to a problem that you have been struggling with for years. The connections in the brain and the desire to actually share that with you don’t come from people who are only taught to keep their head down and focus solely on the task in front of them.
And now, back to our story…
The more you encourage little decisions, the more comfortable employees will feel about making those, and even larger decisions. You also get to evaluate and guide their learning in terms of making those choices for the best outcome for everyone. Win-win.
As a little overlap to our final post on Trust, I think it’s important to address trust as it applies to empowerment.
For you, you need to trust that your employees will do the right thing. They may not all the time, but that’s why you will be there to guide them the next time. You show trust by not micromanaging, respecting their decisions and helping them grow.
Your employees need to trust you to not change the rules on them midstream. If you encourage empowerment, but employees get in trouble for thinking outside the box, you will unravel any desire to do that again in the future. They also have to trust that you’ll have their back if something goes south.
I know I’ve told this story before, but it more than applies here as we talk about employees making decisions and how trust factors in.
When I was an Operations Area Manager at Valleyfair, one of the departments I oversaw was Admissions, which included Guest Services. I was extremely lucky to have a returning Supervisor on my staff named Lisa. Lisa had worked there for many years already, and had probably forgotten more than I would ever learn. One day early in my tenure as manager, Lisa came to me with a guest complaint issue. She explained the situation and asked my opinion about what she should do. Based on her experience, I had more than an inkling than she already had a resolution in mind, so I asked what she thought. She quickly provided a great solution, so we went with her idea.
Lisa KNEW what to do, and of course I had told her before that that she could make those decisions, but we hadn’t established the trust in our relationship yet that made her feel comfortable to go ahead and make that decision without my approval.
The moral to that story? For empowerment to work, it takes time. It’s a perfect storm of knowledge, desire, permission and encouragement.
Oh, and trust. Can’t forget trust. Good thing that is the topic of our next post in the series!
Next up: Trusted
Thanks for reading!
About the author – After 20+ years in hospitality leadership and human resources, Matt Heller founded Performance Optimist Consulting in 2011 with one simple goal: Help Leaders Lead. Matt now works with attractions large and small and leaders at all levels to help them improve leadership competencies, customer service, employee motivation and teamwork. His book, “The Myth of Employee Burnout” was released in 2013 has become a go-to resource among industry leaders.