Reducing Empowerment 101

All companies should strive to empower their employees. This simply means that all employees should feel that they have the ability to make decisions on behalf of the company. Toyota, for example, gives every employee the ability to stop the assembly line at any time, for any reason. Stopping the assembly line is an extremely expensive task for the company, however Toyota realizes that the people on the line have the knowledge, ability, and desire to be able to stop the assembly line if they see a problem. In essence, Toyota empowers them.

Empowerment has prerequisites and consequences though.

The prerequisites are pretty simple to state but harder to live – empowered employees must be aligned with the goals, vision, and processes of the company. If the employee is expected to act on behalf of the company then he or she must understand what the company wants and needs. Being tightly aligned with the core values of the company and understanding the vision of the firm is essential to this. Using Toyota again, one example may be that a frame on the assembly line is severely damaged, which an employee may realize will damage the assembly line itself. Stopping the line furthers the vision and values of the company by enhancing quality and saving money.

Conversely, if you have a strong alignment with the goals and vision but lack knowledge of the process, empowerment can hurt instead of help. Using the same example as before, if the employee stopped the assembly line because of the bent frame but didn’t know that there was already a process for handling such things, stopping the assembly line could result in a needless loss of money. If employees are not aligned with the visions and values of a company then the resulting decisions may be out of sync with what is truly good for the company.

The quickest way to reduce empowerment is to not have it evenly distributed. By this I mean that not everyone has an equal understanding of their level of empowerment and the implications of it. This can be for a number of reasons – everything from poor communication coming down from management to low self esteem of an empowered employee.

When you have varying levels of empowerment a few different forces are at play that reduce the benefit of an empowered company.

First, empowerment is reduced for all because of a reduced understanding by some. If people have varying degrees of what they are entitled to you will ultimately have confusion. This confusion will ultimately lead to a reduction of perceived empowerment by the group. Sticking with the example of the bent frame on the assembly line, if one employee feels they have the right to stop the assembly line but another doesn’t it is a matter of sheer luck as to which employee notices the defect. If the empowered one notices then they stop the assembly line and set a positive example for the rest of the employees. If the non-empowered one notices then they ignore it, also setting an example for the rest of the employees, albeit a negative one.

Second, people escalate needlessly. When there is confusion over levels of empowerment people will naturally escalate to superiors in order to gain clarification. Continuing our assembly line example, if both the empowered and unempowered employee notice the defect at the same time there will likely be confusion and debate over whether to stop the assembly line or not. Clarification will likely be sought and the line manager will be needlessly pulled in. Had both employees understood their level of empowerment the right thing would have been done and the line manager would have never been pulled in.

Finally, money, time, or other resources are wasted and management locks down the empowerment rights. This is simply a case of management treating the symptom instead of the ailment. If the assembly line is stopped when the employee should not have stopped it then management may incorrectly choose to treat the symptom, the employee wrongly choose to stop the assembly line, instead of the ailment, the fact that the employee doesn’t understand his or her level of empowerment. Locking down the empowerment instead of increasing awareness results in a loss for the entire company.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but simply the primary ones that are likely to occur when empowerment is not evenly distributed. Empowerment is good and is something that all companies should strive for. However, it is a double edged sword that must be handled with care to prevent inadvertently getting cut.

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Jason McDonald

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