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That Empower Word Again

Empower means enableThat overused term "empowerment" is generating a high snicker factor these days.

Managers proclaim they want to move decision making down the organization and give frontline people more freedom. But employees who have seen management trends come and go figure: "If we lay low long enough, this too shall pass."

Cynicism aside, highly involved workers can produce huge gains in quality, service, productivity and innovation. Yet many well-aimed efforts fail because they try to leap to an empowerment utopia without first putting the basics in place.

Empowerment is too often confused with superficial motivation programs designed to "turn on" employees. Snappy slogans, training sessions, newsletters, or pep rallies exhort employees to care about customers, put quality first, or "do it right the first time."

These efforts reveal management's profound ignorance of the causes of poor performance. Research consistently shows 85 to 95 percent of the service, quality, or productivity problems originate in the organization's structure and processes.

There is a right way to create a highly involved and empowered work force, but it takes enormous effort:

  • The company must develop coaching and leadership skills among supervisors, managers and executives. Management training is the key to developing a culture that encourages and supports workers' initiative.

Furthermore, many employee-involvement efforts fail in effectively involving middle managers and supervisors. As Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter puts it: "Participation is usually what the top orders the middle to do for the bottom."

Typically, employees are organized into improvement teams and hear senior executives asking for input. When they return to their jobs, they find their bosses still steeped in authoritarian attitudes.

In addition, many empowerment efforts suffer from lack of "enablement." That is, employees are not well trained, systems hinder more than help work teams and service providers, and processes are riddled with errors or delays.

As management expert Peter Drucker says, "so much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work." Managers can "empower" or zap employees until their hair is smoking. Yet if those employees are not enabled to make a difference, empowerment will be seen as a way of loading management's failures on employees' backs.

  • Employees must have skills to clarify their own expectations - and those of customers. They must be able to analyze their work processes, and to use problem-solving tools and techniques that are based on performance data.

They need to develop "people skills" such as how to resolve conflicts, present their ideas, participate on teams, and constructively channel emotions.

  • Priorities must be set. Senior executives must focus the organization on the improvements or areas of attention that are of greatest strategic value.

And improvement ideas should be evaluated and "owned" by the work groups who have to put them into action. This calls for strong senior management support in providing skills and information - and to eliminate barriers against implementing the changes.

  • The organization must align its systems - for reward and recognition, performance management, planning, and information management - to support employee involvement.

Too often, systems serve accountants, technocrats, or management. Get the cart behind the horse. Systems should serve customers or those producing, delivering, or supporting your products or services.

Originally appeared in Jim's column in The Globe & Mail. Jim Clemmer is a bestselling author and internationally acclaimed keynote speaker, workshop/retreat leader, and management team developer on leadership, change, customer focus, culture, teams, and personal growth.

More about empowering employees around the Web:

8 TIps for Empowering Employees

Empowering Employees For Dummies

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