It’s something similar to TQM, but partial, incomplete, and
certainly not very effective.
Problems with Empowerment
Let’s look at a fictitious situation. A problem-solving team
has a recommendation turned down by management after months of hard
work and much internal wrangling with the data to determine the
root cause of the problem and formulate a solution.
empowered team spent months utilizing both work and personal time,
enthusiastically battling their own biases and predispositions to
arrive at an informed consensus. Using data and not opinions, they
determined the most likely root causes and the most promising solution
set to address the causes. They even calculated a probable return
on the investment worthy of executive management’s attention
empowered work team involved the engineers and the downstream operations
organisations in an effort to ensure that all appropriate stakeholders
were represented. Middle management sat patiently on the sidelines,
ready to support but not disempower the team. It was as “blue
sky” an occurrence as anyone on the team could have wildly
envisioned. It seemed that the TQM poster slogans were true. Quality
was up to them. Empowerment was the path of the enlightened.
presentation was painstakingly prepared by all team members. The
presentation was practiced to perfection with much guidance and
feedback provided by the empowered team members to each other using
all the new interpersonal skills learned in the classroom. Cross-organisational
bonds were formed that would transcend the heat of the future moments
when the inevitable crises struck. The big day finally arrived.
Management’s response seemed unexplainably cool during the
smooth presentation. The proposal for spending $350,000.00 in capital
upgrades over a three-month period, for a calculated return of $3.5
million within 12 months, did not seem to excite the TQM executive
steering team. Management offered faint praise for a project and
presentation that were obviously well done. Then they moved on to
the next opportunity presentation.
final word came down days later. No investment was to be made and
no further explanation was offered. The team was stunned.
management knew, but couldn’t share, was proprietary information
regarding the planned discontinuance of the existing product. New
production capacity is being secretly geared up for a radically
new replacement product. The new product is expected to take the
market by storm and set the competition back three years. With the
anticipated jump on the competition, the payback period is expected
to be short and the cash flow projections for four years out would
allow for funding many more business opportunities. But right now
it’s all a highly proprietary secret.
can’t share information it knows because it would not be consistent
with their legal and fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders
of the company. If they shared their strategic product plan with
the workers, that would increase the chance of an information leak
to the competition. If the competition got wind of the plans in
the early developmental stages, all the advantages that could be
gained by being first to the market with the new product will be
lost. The investment payback period would be extended, and there
could be a significant loss in the potential growth of shareholder
value. Management cannot risk those results.
therefore, management risks upsetting the newly empowered employees
and being the object of their wrath. Employees might reach the conclusion
that management has again lied to and deceived them or that their
management is incompetent or politically motivated. All their hard
work, conflict resolution, and consensus building seems for naught;
a wasted effort, a frustrating experience. The employees have learned
a lesson that they will remember. And when asked to approach another
problem or opportunity, they will do so much less willingly and
much less enthusiastically. Some may be so upset by the apparent
deception they suffered that they will retaliate and try to sabotage
future attempts to initiate improvements.
Misconceptions Regarding Empowerment
Empowerment seems very logical and very simple at first blush. What
is wrong with pushing the decision-making power further down into
the organisation? Many misconceptions abound and the issues that
empowerment raises are really more complex than they seem.
first misconception is that empowerment exists as a powerful tool/technique
on its own. Not true. Empowerment is a management component of TQM—Total
Quality Management. TQM requires a total systems approach, shared
information, and better communications. Empowerment requires that
the systems of TQM be in place to support its efforts—teaming,
leadership, reward systems, communication systems, etc. It cannot
exist in a vacuum.
employees may feel very strongly that if they have been empowered
by management, their power is now absolute. Either they are empowered
fully, or they are not empowered at all. The act or process of becoming
empowered—of empowering—may not be fully understood.
Just as personnel in the armed forces must earn their stripes, teams
must earn the right to make decisions. Management has to feel confident
that, when they are handing over decision-making power, sound decisions
will be made. Where management doesn’t have the most complete
information to make the right decision but the empowered employee
or team does, then the person or team should be empowered. People
need to realize that empowerment does not mean the right to dictate
each decision. Decisions should always be made by the party most
capable given the particular situation and information known in
regard to the issue. There needs to be an understanding, however,
that the individual’s or team’s decisions may be reversed
by management without substantial rationale/support. It’s
a fact of life that you won’t always know why things happen
the way they do.
third misconception is that it’s easy to get from here to
there, or that it is not a road fraught with pitfalls. Empowerment
doesn’t happen with a “quantum leap.” It requires
a carefully orchestrated series of “baby steps.” You
know, walk before you run; crawl before you walk; roll over before
you crawl; lie there and observe before you even attempt to make
your first move.
and Precepts of Empowerment
We are not presenting a definitive statement on empowerment, because
there is not one readily agreed to by all involved in this issue.
There are too many qualifiers required in a real world full of variability
and change. One size will not fit all. So we must beg off with a
list of concepts and precepts related to empowerment.
Concepts Related to Empowerment
Empowerment will result in better business decisions. If the decisions
are made at the correct level, they will be informed decisions
made through consensus rather than decisions made with limited
information in a vacuum.
Empowerment should speed the decision-making process. When the
right people are empowered as a team to work out an issue, they
won’t need to go continually “up the ladder”
for approvals and incur additional requirements and delays.
Decisions are best made at the appropriate levels or job positions
closest to the action (the source of the problem or solution).
No one else can understand these issues or opportunities with
greater clarity. No one hears the complaints or sees indications
of dissatisfaction more frequently than they do.
Empowerment should be given to teams with cross-function/discipline
expertise. Decisions are best made based on fact, not opinion.
Facts are pieces of information derived from data. But usually,
all the data and information don’t exist at any one level
Decisions to be made by the empowered should be duly influenced
by all of the potentially conflicting requirements of the various
stakeholder groups. These requirements need to be understood,
sorted out, and balanced.
Employees do want to produce quality work and be proud of and
satisfied with their work. Recognition, such as positive feedback
from management, suppliers, or the customer, plays an important
part in ensuring employee satisfaction. Rewards such as salary
raises, gain-sharing bonuses, benefits, etc., also affirm a job
Precepts Related to Empowerment
• Empowerment will never be absolute. Empowerment at the individual
or team level will never result in the absolute best decision for
the combined needs of all the stakeholders. There will be times
when management must and should pull back the reins of decision-making
or reverse a decision made, and times when they will not fully explain
Empowerment inherently involves risks. Management needs to develop
reward/consequence systems that reward the “baby steps.”
Risk-taking will severely decline if failures are unacceptable or
met with punishment. The efforts of all teams/individuals need to
be rewarded equally. Both failures and successes present opportunities
for learning. It has to be culturally acceptable to try and fail
in order for the lessons learned from failure to be shared. That
means negative consequences for failures need to be removed from
the work environment and positive consequences put in place.
The success or failure of empowerment is within the control of management.
Management must create the vision, sell the story, walk the talk,
support and encourage, and truly communicate. Management must invest
in the resources necessary to train all of those involved in the
process and provide the tools necessary, even for themselves! Management
must be willing to be upfront about their mistakes. They must open
the environment to allow for communication upward, downward, and
diagonally. They must remove any threats to the employees. They
must support the slogans by their actions. People will listen, but
most will watch, waiting to see whether management action is truly
supporting the empowerment message being delivered.
The Process of Empowering
Our employees want empowerment; in fact, once
they understand the concept, they will demand empowerment. You won’t
have to force it upon them, they will gladly take it—not because
they are power-hungry crazies, but because they want to contribute.
Remember that they are capable people trying to do a good job. They
want to be empowered because it makes them feel as though the company
recognizes them as the valuable asset they know they are truly capable
must be understood by all that are to participate in the process.
The concepts and precepts of empowerment will differ depending upon
the audience. The needs of the executives differ from the middle
manager, supervisor, or the individual contributor.
the crux of implementing empowerment is management’s support
of the concept. Recognize that there is a strong fear factor at
work for those who must buy-in to make empowerment a reality—namely,
middle management and supervision (or team leaders/coaches/etc.).
The organisation may be asking them to change ingrained patterns
that have worked over the years. They remain responsible for the
overall performance of their area/department but should share the
decision-making with their employees. Some may not be too excited
about participating in this “experiment” with their
management must ensure that risk-taking is never punished, even
when the results are disastrous. Accepting and learning from failures
is a stretch for everyone. Only a strong, confident management group
can put into place a measurement and reward system that uses failure
data in nonpunitive ways. Both failures and successes can offer
valuable lessons. A celebrated failure may significantly reduce
the risks of recurrence.
as a baby grows into a child, so can empowerment grow from a concept
to a well-implemented management style. The process is composed
of the following “baby steps” (with apologies to Neil
Simon and the movie “What about Bob?”). These steps
are for those determining how to install a process for establishing
1: Look around and Determine where You Are and where You Need to
even roll over yet. Determine where you are and orient yourself.
Look for insights.
where it is you need to go with empowerment. Ask the following questions:
What is the current situation?
What is the current relationship between management and employees?
How are most decisions made now?
What is our current culture? What barriers can we see that will
inhibit our success?
Where is TQM now and what will be implemented in the future? What’s
been working, and what hasn’t?
about the other plans with which you need to integrate your empowerment
Step 2: Roll Over (in the Right Direction)
Now that you can more clearly see what you want to do,
you need to position your organisation to get there. Don’t
start moving until you have everything that you may need on this
you have the preliminary systems for training, the preliminary information
systems, and the preliminary reinforcement systems in place? Have
you decided upon a consistent message that will facilitate this
effort? Do we have the required management buy-in, or do they have
questions or unresolved concerns? Will management really participate,
or will they only pay lip service to the effort?
Step 3: Crawl Slowly at First
Explore your surroundings as you begin to move out. Move out slowly.
When crawling, midcourse corrections are much easier; there is less
momentum to slow down, and efforts are easier to redirect.
a few trials or pilot tests. Pick several different processes and/or
functions for your tests. Teach the process participants how to
define their stakeholders, how to identify their complex sets of
requirements, and how to balance out their product/service portfolios
to best balance the needs of stakeholders in a manner consistent
with the goals of the overall business.
with different empowering techniques. Measure your progress not
for speed, but for effect. Ask for feedback and suggestions and
adapt your techniques accordingly. Share your successes and celebrate
and reward the efforts of all your failures. Encourage all learning,
even that which comes as a result of pain.
the requirement for infrastructure that changes/adapts. Systems
such as policies and procedures, information, appraisal, and compensation
may present barriers to the implementation of empowerment. Acknowledge
those barriers and disseminate plans for tackling the issues and
opportunities. Share the nonsensitive information where you can.
Step 4: Walk (and Talk and Listen, and Walk the Talk and
Once your testing (crawling) is completed, stand up and pick up
speed, but don’t run. Walk slowly, even though like a child
you may be tempted to run too soon; patient parents caution against
running too fast too soon. But as we all know, much of the learning
occurs from the falls, bumps, and bruises.
the implementation. Fix the support systems and processes that present
barriers. Empower the owners of such systems. Teach them how to
define their stakeholders, their complex sets of requirements, and
how to balance out their product/service portfolios to meet the
needs of all stakeholders in a way that is still profitable for
the business. Provide the guidance and support needed without disempowering
all of the efforts as you implement empowerment throughout the organisation.
Demonstrate support via all of your actions. But most importantly,
listen and invite feedback. Listen carefully to ensure that you
truly understand the message contained in the feedback, and adapt
the system accordingly.
Step 5: Run
Once you find that you can walk without too much stumbling, it’s
time to pick up speed. This can be done only when you feel confident
that you’ll be able to pick yourself up if you run and fall.
never to let the data from the information systems be used in a
punitive manner. Instead, let that data guide you in reshaping behaviors.
This is done by providing an appropriate balance of consequences.
following model provides a framework for identifying, sorting, and
understanding consequences, whether short or long term, positive
The Balance of Consequences Model
is shaped by known consequences. For example, a baby learns that
if he falls on a hardwood floor, he may get hurt. But a fall on
a carpeted floor offers a safe and cushioned place to experiment
with walking. This is the type of environment needed for empowerment
to flourish. In order to establish consequences, you need to understand
the consequences with which people are currently living. Use a chart
similar to the one below to list the consequences, which currently
exist, for whom, and their exact nature. Don’t be surprised
when they surprise you. It may be necessary to re-engineer them
to encourage and discourage more appropriately.
to engineer or to re-engineer the consequences provided in your
real world to obtain a better balance. You may not always be able
to remove negative consequences, even though you might like to.
What you need to do then is minimize them, or change the balance
so that there are more positives from the desired behavior or action
than negatives from the undesired.
your consequence re-engineering work in columns 1 and 2, going from
positive short term to long term. Stay away from the cells in columns
3 and 4 as long as possible. But if necessary, focus on the short-term
negatives, because long-term negatives just don’t always have
the impact required. Overall, accentuate the positive, and rely
less on the negative. But acknowledge that there may be a need to
provide negative consequences to deter certain behaviors that run
counter to empowerment, such as managers who hoard data or make
to take things slowly. Walk before you run; crawl before you walk;
roll over before you crawl; lie there and observe before you make
your first move.
an imperfect world with lots of variability. Mistakes are a reality.
Increased mistakes are a reality inherent with risk-taking. Risk-taking
is inherent with change, and change is the goal of continuous improvement