Opening the door to empowered workers
If you want to empower your work force you must first change how your managers view their role as managers.
Many managers view their role as owning the operation and being in control of what people do and being able to command them to change.
This creates a dis-empowered work force that does what they are told, rather than thinking about how something could be done more effectively or efficiently.
Empowerment begins when managers change their attitude.
Under a command and control approach to management an employee will wait for a manager to act when something goes wrong.
This might mean that production is slowed or stops completely with all of the consequent losses and delays to customers.
If an employee feels empowered, they take control of things when something goes wrong and put it right, without necessarily asking a manager for permission to do so first.
An employee in a clothing factory noticed that the colour of the fabric she was dying was not really what the specification that was required.
She concluded that the problem must be with the batch of dye that she was using.
Her supervisor and their supervisor were both away from the production unit, and not due back for several hours. So, there was no one that she could refer the problem to. Yet, she knew that she had to act because the fabric was needed by colleagues in other departments. If she didn’t solve the problem the whole factory might have to stop work.
She decided to call the dye supplier and ask them to check the composition of that batch of dye.
The supplier confirmed that the batch was faulty and sent over a replacement straight away.
Only an hour of production time was lost, because one employee saw problem and felt empowered to act to both solve the problem and limit the impact that it had on the business as a whole.
Just a simple example of an empowered worker taking the initiative, going beyond their job description and level of authority or decision making and put in some discretionary effort.
The discretionary effort is what someone can do that goes beyond what is expected of them, without the expectation of any additional reward.
It is commonplace activity with employees who feel empowered, but rare in situations with a command and control management style.
Employers that empower their employees to make these sorts of decisions and act to resolve problems are rarely disappointed by the actions of their employees.
Empowered employees will often take on situations that they have not encountered before and create workable solutions.
Sometimes, employees go way above the limitations of their job description and put in a level of discretionary effort that causes genuine inconvenience to themselves and their friends and families.
It is important that when creating an empowered culture that employees are given limitations to the decision making and actions that they can take without seeking assistance from a superior or other people.
It is however difficult to define these exactly because it is impossible to define every situation that may arise.
What can an employee do when they are faced with an unhappy customer? At one courier firm an employee chartered an aeroplane to ensure that a customer’s important parcel was delivered on time.
When a pupil at a secondary school collapsed valuable life-saving minutes were lost because instead of dialing 999 the teacher followed the procedure which said that any pupil illness should first be reported to the school nurse.
Empowerment is one of those fancy words that HR people use to explain something that is normally straight- forward.
Being empowered simply means that you have the confidence to take the initiative in a situation where management could not have foreseen nor laid down a procedure in advance.
One of the important aspects of empowerment is that the employee needs to have a wider understanding of the organisation than just their job description. Without that understanding they just won’t have the knowledge to take the initiative.
Employees are empowered to act when they have enough knowledge and experience about the organisation and its culture, to know what works and what actions managers would approve.
Even with that knowledge and experience acting still involves an element of risk for the employee.
Empowering employees creates a level of risk for both managers and the employees. The difficult questions are
- Do managers trust their employees to act as they would
- Do employees trust their managers not to blame them if the actions the employee takes don’t work out as planned.
Empowering employees leads to them taking a greater level of ownership of their own job and the processes they are involved in as a whole.
Employees who know that they are empowered are more likely to
- take responsibility when things go wrong
- share the credit when things go well
- have higher levels of morale,
- be more productive
- proactively involved in their personal growth
- work in a safer way
Perhaps the most noticeable benefit of empowering employees is the change of attitude towards problems and problem solving.
A command and control manager creates employees who look on the negative side and say we can’t do that or that’s impossible.
Empowered employees are more likely to say, here’s a new situation. How can we make it work?