Empowerment & Engagement – Part 1 of 2

The Goals of Empowerment & Engagement

The overriding goal of the “empowerment” concept is much the same as the “delegation” concept that has been promoted in past decades: Better business decisions – period.

Now the new buzz-phrase is: Engagement.

I believe that Engagement comes from being Empowered. They are flip sides of the same coin. They are yesterday’s buzz in new clothing.

One cannot be engaged and not empowered. So it all goes back to Empowerment.

Empowerment and Engagement are not in vogue today simply because they are another set of motherhood issues. They are not a component of the  of  Human Performance Technology or Improvement crowd’s latest proclamations – simply because they will make people feel better about themselves and will, therefore, make them work harder and be more productive for the business entity.

If management knew for a fact that poorer business decisions would be made as a tradeoff for an improvement in the workers’ self-esteem, does anyone pretend that they would continue to promote the employee empowerment and engagement concepts? I think not.

In theory, by empowering and engaging employees by moving the decision-making authority closest to the true sources of knowledge about any problems or opportunities and their potential solutions, better decisions will be made—better business decisions. By increasing everyone’s Empowerment and Engagement – the people will be more fulfilled at work.

But that is not always the case. Our results with Empowerment and Engagement often fall short of our business goals.

Why? PQM—Partial Quality Management. It’s something similar to the 1980s and 1990s view of TQM – Total Quality management, but partial, incomplete, and certainly not very effective. Not systemic enough.

The Problems with Empowerment & Engagement

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.

The empowered and uber-engaged 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 and praise.

The empowered work team engaged with many others – the engineers and all of the other downstream operations organizations in an effort to ensure that all appropriate stakeholders were represented and also engaged in this empowerment. All were fully engaged – but then not so empowered. Hmm.

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 poster slogans were true. Quality was up to them. Empowerment was the path of the enlightened. Engaged people were more fulfilled at the workplace.

A formal presentation was painstakingly prepared by all team members and no one interrupted or otherwise dis-empowered them or disengaged them. The presentation was practiced to perfection with much guidance and feedback provided by the engaged and enthusiastic and empowered team members to each other – using all the new interpersonal skills learned in the classroom and between them in informal learning. Cross-organizational 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 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.

The final word came down days later. No investment was to be made and no further explanation was offered. The team was stunned.

What the…!?!

Talk about DIS-engagement and DIS-respect!!!

However…

What 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.

Management 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.

And, therefore, management risked upsetting the newly empowered and very engaged 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, much less engaged, much less empowered.

Some employees may be so upset by the apparent deception that they all suffered that they will retaliate and try to sabotage future attempts to initiate improvements – deliberately or inadvertently via their new attitudes.

Misconceptions Regarding Empowerment & Engagement

Empowerment and it’s new cousin Engagement seems very logical and very simple at first blush.

What is wrong with pushing the decision-making power further down into the organization? What is wrong with telling what is going on in the Enterprise – and getting them engaged?

Many misconceptions abound and the issues that empowerment and engagement raises are really more complex than they seem at that first blush.

The first misconception is that empowerment or engagement exists as a powerful tool/technique on their own. Not true. Empowerment is a management performance improvement tool. But it is only one tool and needs to be used in a total systems approach to improvement, along with shared information, and better communications. Empowerment and engagement requires that the systems approach of performance improvement be in place to support its efforts—teaming, leadership, reward systems, communication systems, etc. They cannot exist in a vacuum.

Second, employees may feel very strongly that if they have been empowered by management and asked to be engaged, that their new-found power is now absolute. Either they are empowered fully, or they are not empowered at all. Either they are fully engaged in everything – or they are disengaged. The act or process of becoming empowered and engaged —of empowering and engaging —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. That engages them. 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. And that that is not disengagement. It’s a fact of life that you won’t always know why things happen the way they do.

The 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.” Engagement doesn’t happen just because you ask people to be more engaged. They both 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.

Engagement comes from being empowered. And from being trusted. However…

Concepts 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 or location.
  • 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 well done.
  • 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 their actions.
  • 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.

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 their actions.
  • 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.

Future Post – Empowerment & Engagement Part 2

Part 2 of this 2-part Post is available – here.

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2 comments on “Empowerment & Engagement – Part 1 of 2

  1. Readers may be interested to watch the educational documentaries I wrote and directed, ‘People Power for Staff’ and ‘People Power for Managers’. They are now free to view on my YouTube channel at EyesEars.com


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  2. Pingback: Empowerment & Engagement – Part 2 of 2 « EPPIC – Pursuing Performance

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