Empowerment: Buzzword or Bedrock?

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As happens regularly in our line of work, we were recently contacted by an industry journalist to contribute our thinking to an article – this time on the topic of “employee empowerment.” “How do you define it?” she asked. “How important is it to business organizations?” “Does it really matter to employees?” “And what are some examples of empowerment actually working in real companies?”

The challenge here, of course, is that like so many business buzzwords and phrases – “re-engineering,” “change management,” “best-practice,” “high-performing teams,” “right-sizing,” “learning organizations,” etc., etc., overuse often leads to misuse and, ultimately, to dilution and the loss of the original concept.

Then, too, to the degree that these concepts “catch on” and become almost management “fads,” they often get more “lip-service” than substantive action. So now everyone’s organization has to be a “learning” organization; everything becomes a “best-practice”; and, of course, everyone practices enlightened “employee empowerment.” But consider this: How many annual reports have you seen that state something to the effect that “our employees are our most important asset”? And how many companies, in your experience, really operate according to that principle?

Empowerment: It Does Make a Difference
Yet behind all these buzzwords and platitudes lies the fact that empowering employees does, indeed, have an impact on organizational effectiveness and business success. Just to cite a few examples:

“A 2012 Gallup poll found that actively disengaged employees cost their firms $370 billion in lost productivity.

According to another report — the Tempkin Group’s Employee Engagement Benchmark Study 2013 — highly engaged employees are:
• 480 percent more committed to helping their companies succeed
• 250 percent more likely to make suggestions that will better their firms
• 30 percent less likely to take a sick day.”

(see source)

And there are many more such studies that validate the point. But we didn’t need the studies to be believers. Because we’ve seen empowerment playing out – or not! – right down into the operations of many client companies across more than 25 years of management consulting. And we know the difference between empowerment as “buzzword” and empowerment as the “bedrock” of a successful business enterprise.

So that’s what we talked about with our industry journalist.

Empowerment: Beyond Just Words
The essence of true empowerment, we suggested, is providing individuals with recourse against the intractability and the impersonal nature of bureaucracy. Empowered work environments or “cultures” provide people with ways to question and, if necessary, get involved in changing the status quo for the better. In empowered organizations there’s always a way, as the old expression goes, to “fight city hall.” As a result, empowered people develop a greater sense of “ownership” for their jobs. They also feel a stronger connection to and responsibility for their company as a whole. Why? Because they know from experience that they matter and that they can have an impact. Is it any wonder, then, that companies with empowered workforces perform better on the whole?

Getting from Buzzword to Bedrock
“But how do you create an empowered work environment?” our journalist asked. We answered with a couple of examples from our work in helping clients create empowerment processes in their organizations:

Example I: Banking on Empowerment
A banking client of ours was taking, on average, seven to nine business days—sometimes as many as 15! – to return customers’ lost or stolen debit cards. Think of the impact on customer satisfaction!

A group of bank employees, each of whom played a role in this key process, came together in one room as a team to create for themselves a holistic view of the entire card replacement operation. Working together, according to a framework we structured and facilitated, they figured out how to shave four to five days off their average card replacement time. Then, with this success at their backs and some training from us, they established and replicated this process-improvement framework to address other issues throughout the bank. It now serves as an ongoing improvement program, allowing anyone at the bank to identify and work on issues that have the potential to improve the bank’s overall performance.

Since our involvement ended, bank personnel have improved other processes affecting such bank practices as lines-of-credit, home-equity-loan approval, customer file-maintenance, and IRA account initiation, to name a few. And, according to our client, the improvement approach itself has become “a part of the way we do things around here.”

Example II: Empowerment Cleans the Corporate Attic
When we first encountered this newly-appointed chief executive of a country division of this large multi-national pharmaceuticals firm he was frustrated by the legacy of a rigid bureaucracy that was causing him to lose bright, young entrepreneurial talent to other parts of the company. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he cried, “I have to sign off on croissants for luncheon meetings!”

We assembled and guided a team of employees that, with the active encouragement of this division head, took on the task of identifying and eliminating bureaucratic, non-value-added (NVA) work practices, procedures and approval protocols across the entire operating unit. The result: In two days, they identified some seventy-four person week’s worth of NVA’s. Within ninety days, they had also eliminated them. And as the following quote from the division head himself illustrates, like our banking client, they too made the empowerment process an ongoing part of their operating culture:

“I had the chance to ‘walk the talk’ in the last few days and asked people about the session. The fire in their eyes was the best response. I think we have done more than saving 74 weeks [of non-value-added work], which in itself is great already. We have boosted the ‘can-do’ mentality; people now feel empowered to do more of this and present more recommendations of this kind.”

The Essence of Empowerment
We don’t need to cite more examples to illustrate what real empowerment means. Our two previous illustrations contain all the necessary ingredients:

First, business leaders need to make it clear that taking an interest in and questioning “the way we do things around here” is not only allowed, but encouraged.

Second, people must have the chance to see and understand their roles in the context of the entire process of which they may be a part – like our banking team. This allows them to make intelligent decisions about what they do with a holistic sense of the impact of their actions on others involved in the same process.

Third, once the two conditions above are met, mechanisms must exist to support and channel the thinking and productive action of caring, inquisitive, committed people in your company.

And last, as both our examples illustrate, empowered action can’t just be exceptional or occasional; it must become an ongoing part of the way the company conducts its business.

Owners vs. Cogs in the Works
There’s really no mystery here, we suggested, as we wrapped up our interview with the journalist. Understandably, people who feel like “cogs in the works,” buried in bureaucracies that don’t react or even listen to their input, eventually either leave, if they can, or “turn off” if they can’t. On the other hand, people who are encouraged to think about and improve things in their work environment begin to act more like “owners,” because, of course, in a sense, that’s what they are.

So envision these two alternatives: an organization full of “doers” vs. an organization full of “owners.” Which one do you think is more likely to deliver the kind of results you’re looking for in your business?