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Watch Out for the Emptiness of Empowerment

Long, long ago, maybe back in the ’80s, “empowerment” was the hot new thing in workplaces. The word itself had a regenerative, creative, motivating sound. It held the possibility that, instead of laboring under bureaucratic Theory X command-and-control management structures (with an emphasis on control), employees could take responsibility for exercising business judgment in their own jobs.

On the Frontlines

The idea was that employees, particularly frontline service employees, were capable of making good decisions as part of their everyday duties, and, if management delegated that responsibility to them, their companies would save time and money while the employees themselves would develop greater competence, confidence, and sense of pride.

Lots of organizations made proclamations about empowering their people, but ended up complaining that the decisions that their newly “empowered” employees made weren’t actually so great. Employees often didn’t take into account the big picture or past precedents, or focus on the correct details, or break new ground.

In the late ’80s or early ’90s the cry went up that employees needed to be “enabled” before they could be correctly and effectively empowered. In other words, as the revised approach recommended, employees required sufficient training about business needs, practices, and decision criteria to know what to do when the time came to take independent action.

Boundary Issues

How shocking to realize that training should precede performance!

And yet, many execs still don’t recognize that they must invest in comprehensive, developmental training for reps to present product, understand customer preferences, and bridge the gap when something went awry. But although training was a good idea, it wasn’t enough.

Even the “enabled, empowered employees” were not really allowed to make their own reasoned, independent decisions. Instead, they were held accountable for making precisely the same decisions that their managers would have made — whether or not they had the knowledge, experience, or perspective of those managers.


Here’s just one example: A senior exec was fuming when a customer complained that a jacket she had ordered had arrived with a small stain, and the rep did not immediately offer to replace it. Instead, the rep suggested that the customer dry clean the garment. Of course, the exec wanted the item replaced, and quickly. He took great pride in the company’s merchandise and reputation for quality, and he wanted the customer to feel totally satisfied with the relationship as well as the product instead of feeling like she was being sent on extra errands.

But the rep had been told to keep costs down per the budget for replacement, and her authorization limit would only permit the dry cleaning reimbursement, not the cost of a new jacket. She had done the best she could do with her level of empowerment.

Power and Light

Instead of empowering our reps, couldn’t we just remove some of the barriers to their decision-making, and clear the way for common sense and thoughtfulness? Couldn’t we revise our service policies and procedures so that they’re not inherently in conflict and clarify our goals for customer satisfaction? Why should reps have to worry about being generous but not too often, or only be able to take care of customers who are clearly irate or have specified exactly what action they want taken?

Let’s focus less on empowering employees — as if they’d suddenly be able to fight dragons and solve complicated puzzles — and instead, just think about giving employees a little more freedom. Yes, give them freedom from outdated and duplicative procedures or excessive supervisory pickiness, and let them treat customers more like the way they themselves would want to be treated.

A little more freedom and a little less empowerment might help people at all levels focus on using their heads instead of covering their posteriors.

Onward and upward,


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