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Empowerment, or how to get your people to do great things for you.

Before we start, I have to ask you, do you know what empowerment really means?  The reason I ask is that as the popularity of this buzz word has grown, I have had more and more people ask me about it and one incident focussed on the problems involved.

I received a phone call from the el supremo of a large carpet manufacturer.  “Mr Burch, I want you to come and empower my staff.”  “To do what?” I asked.  “To move us forward through empowerment into the upturn!”  “Empower them to do what?” I asked.  “Empowered, er, empowered, ah, empowered to move ever onward!”  “What do you want them to be empowered to do?” I asked again.  “We want them empowered…to do what they’re told.  We want you to empower some discipline into them.”

I explained gently that empowerment, in my opinion, was about transferring executive decision making from the very top of the organisation to the front line.  In other words, everyone could make profitable or business friendly decisions regardless of rank.  The benefits are that it can save money and it can make money.  At the sound of the word ‘money’ this CEO perked up and asked for more information.  I explained that in his case the people at his front line with constant customer contact were his carpet fitters – and that they should be the first to be empowered.  “How would this work?”

Imagine having a carpet fitted when you notice a small fault.  You say to this now empowered carpet fitter, “Excuse me, there seems to be a difference in the pattern.”  The fitter replies, “Oh yes, I am terribly sorry, you must be really disappointed.  What would you like me to do about it?”  “What can you do?”  “Anything you like!”  “A refund?”  “Of course, what shall we say, £30?  £40?  Shall we say £50?”  With that, the fitter takes out a bundle of fivers from his pocket and counts ten out.  “Fifty!  Are you sure you are happy with that?”  “Oh yes!  Delighted!  Thank you.”

After I had presented my theories, there was a moment’s stunned silence…then uproar.  “You are raving mad!  Are you seriously suggesting we give our fitters cash?  You said this would save us money – it will cost us a fortune.”  “What’s wrong with giving the fitter cash?”  “They’ll clear off with it, that’s what.”  “What sort of people are you employing, then?”  “The sort that would run off with our cash, that’s who.”

We were both right, they did have a problem with trust.  Empowerment does allow a flexibility that is open to abuse.  So why take the risk?  You only have to see the current behaviour of the fitters to understand why.  “Excuse me, there seems to be a difference in the pattern.”  “Oh yes, I’m not surprised, these carpets are rubbish – bloody hard to fit as well.  If you think that the pattern is strange, you wait ’til it starts to smell!”  “What are you going to do about it?”  “Can’t do nothing about it, got twenty-four more of these rotten things to fit today.  You’ll have to ring customer service.”

Shall we stop here for a think, because things are not as straightforward as they seem.  Did you hear him mention the other twenty-four carpets?  What do you base his bonus on, the number of carpets fitted or his attitude to the customer?  I don’t think you can do both so on the face of it empowerment could affect numerical productivity – and did you recruit for attitude and honesty or did you recruit for skill?  Consider recruiting only for attitude and then training for skill.

To continue with our story…you ring customer service.  “I’m Janeeeeece, thank yew for calling Acme Carpets.  Can I inform yew that a carpet is a naturally woven product and one can expect differences in colour and pattern.  If you aren’t happy with that, then up yours.”

Now the customer has two choices, both of them bad.  Either they can walk away and never return – this may not feel the worst but it is.  No company can afford to lose customers.  Second worst is that the customer or client bubbles up through the whole organisation, seeking satisfaction, gathering ire and expectation like some infernal snowball until they reach the CEO and say, “I WANT A FREE HOUSE FROM YOU.”

If you are a senior person reading this maybe you have wondered why the customers who get past your gatekeeper have such outrageous demands.  Maybe it is due to a lack of empowerment lower down.

To try and understand the dynamics of empowerment I have tried to find a model that doesn’t have its waters muddied by all the other tensions of modern business and I’ve chosen a medieval example.  The old baron has died and the eager younger baron has inherited the estate.  He is terrified at the state of the finances and the negative cashflow (isn’t it funny that it nearly always takes new management to find these things out) so he calls in the management consultants and, because we are talking Middle Ages here, his firm of choice are Machiavelli and Co.  They suggest that the first thing required is a staff audit.  When this is completed the picture is clear.

“Here is your problem.  Head office, or the castle, as you call it, you’ve got your peasants, smiths and millers – marvellous productive profitable people, but in the castle you’ve got the knights, the ladies in waiting, accounts department, jesters, marketing, minstrels and human resources.  You can get rid of all of them and you will get what we call a ‘flat organisation’.  In other words it will simply be, baron and peasants, peasants and baron.  Peasants work, baron gets money.  Direct, simple, flat, no middle.”

This the baron does and in moments the profits roll in, costs are slashed.  Just like every bank, travel company and out of town retailer has discovered, the next discovery is not so amusing – namely the competition.  The baron next door, who is acquisitive and aggressive, is moving his army on to our baron’s border.  Our hero calls back the consultants in a high state of alarm.

“Know what” he wails, “I have no army.  You made me get rid of my fighting people.”  “Empowerment” is the reply.  “Em, what?”  “Simple.  Empowerment means that you must arm your peasants.”  “You want me to give my peasants guns?  Are you mad?”  (I get a whiff of the carpet fitter here)  “What’s wrong with that?”  “What’s wrong?  I tell you what’s wrong, my peasants hate me.  If you give them guns, the first person they will shoot is me!”

If you mistreat, underpay and under-inform your people, any weapon they get – financial or percussive – will always be turned on you first.  “You’ve got a point, but we have a solution.  We won’t give them any ammunition so to the outside world, they look armed, but in reality they have no real power at all.”

I had cause to stay in a business hotel where it is fairly bland but the food is truly awful.  Being semi-automatic service there isn’t really anyone to complain to, so I don’t, but if I can I avoid staying there.  Then one day I was forced by circumstances to book in.  The next morning I was surprised to be greeted by a smiling woman in a smart business suit who said, “I’m Susan, your hostess.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for staying at Gulag Inn and would like to check that every aspect of your stay was satisfactory.”  “Well actually it wasn’t.  The food was truly horrid.”  She returned a look of panic as gear wheels in her programme jumped and grinded.  She finally regained her composure as she caught the eye of the guest behind me.  “I’m Susan your hostess.  I would like to take this opportunity…”  An unarmed peasant if ever I saw one.

It stands to reason, then, that we must make our people love us, they must understand that the way of life they will defend is better than the invader one – and to quote another tired business cliche – they must become stakeholders.  So, now they love us and they share our goals.  Can we arm them now?  You have got to be joking.  Can you imagine peasants let loose with sophisticated battle weapons – they would be shooting each other in the bottom and themselves in the foot;  they are going to need training.

So we have trained, well rewarded peasants who love us.  Perhaps it is a bit insulting to think of them as peasants – perhaps we could call them our empowered troops.  A bit towards square one, maybe, but still a great improvement.

Empowerment is about every single person who works with you becoming a profit centre.  Everyone, when correctly empowered, can add value.  The route is rocky but the rewards are beyond belief.

Empowerment – a very dangerous but a very profitable word.