Empowerment as a Process

by Guy W. Wallace – Updated in 2021 from the Original 1992 Article

Published in 1993 in the Journal for Quality & Participation – here.

The Goals of Empowerment

The overriding goal of the “empowerment” concept is much the same as the “delegation” concept that has been promoted in past decades: Better business decisions¾period.

Empowerment is not in vogue today simply because it’s another motherhood issue. It’s not a component of the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement simply because it 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 concept? I think not.

In theory, by moving the decision-making authority closest to the true sources of knowledge about the problem and its potential solutions, better decisions will be made—better business decisions. But that is not always the case. Our results with empowerment often fall short with our goals. Why? PQM—Partial Quality Management. It’s something similar to TQM, but partial, incomplete, and certainly not very effective.

The 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.

The 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 and praise.

The empowered work team involved the engineers and the downstream operations organizations 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.

A 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-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 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.

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

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 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 organization? Many misconceptions abound and the issues that empowerment raises are really more complex than they seem.

The 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.

Second, 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.

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.” 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.

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.

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.

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 of being.

Empowerment 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.

At 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 organization 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 careers.

Executive 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.

Just 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 empowerment.

Step 1: Look around and Determine where You Are and where You Need to Go

Don’t even roll over yet. Determine where you are and orient yourself. Look for insights.

Determine 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?
  • Think about the other plans with which you need to integrate your empowerment efforts.

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 organization to get there. Don’t start moving until you have everything that you may need on this journey.

Do 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.

Plan 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.

Experiment 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.

Determine 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 Listen)

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.

Expand 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 teams.

Tout all of the efforts as you implement empowerment throughout the organization. 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.

Try 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.

The Balance of Consequences Model

The following model provides a framework for identifying, sorting, and understanding consequences, whether short or long term, positive or negative.

Behavior 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.

Work 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.

Start 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 individual decisions.

Remember 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.

It’s 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 and TQM.


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