To Empower or Not to Empower…What is the Question?

One of the reasons why a business buzzword gets to a point where it means nothing at all is because leaders use the word without being explicitly clear of its meaning in the context of the organization. They let the word do the talking – with the expectation that the word itself will clearly define a particular strategy or operating philosophy.

Empowerment is such a business buzzword. A CEO, or management team member, or department head may say to staff, “You are empowered to make decisions.” In the leader’s mind that undoubtedly means something specific and concrete, but unless “empowerment” is further defined through verbalizing these specific and concrete expectations, personal interpretation takes hold – leading to an organizational definition of empowerment as broad as the number of staff members to whom that statement was made.

Empowerment is a powerful business concept (or buzzword) that often fails in application. It fails because the lack of a clear definition of what empowerment means leads to staff taking the charge of empowerment far beyond expectations, not far enough, or both.

Empowerment can be an operational gold mine, but to get to that point requires a firm understanding of common empowerment problems, knowledge of the solutions to these problems, and a willingness to adopt a proper empowerment operating model.

Empowerment Problems

In my travels, I often hear a similar complaint from leaders at institutions that have decided to empower their workforces. It goes something like this:

“My employees have been empowered to work with members to find solutions to complaints and challenges, but they always come to me to make the final decision on what they come up with.”

This statement points to a number of common problems with organizational empowerment.

Over-Correction: Leaders may have a habit of jumping in to “correct” employee decisions, thereby communicating to employees that they really are not empowered to freely seek solutions in the best interest of the institution and member.

Lack of Authority: The allocation of decision-making responsibilities may have not gone far enough, with higher levels holding on to the authority that employees need to actually make the decisions they have been “empowered” to make.

Lack of Engagement: Employees may not be encouraged to actively participate in the broader discussion on empowerment, leading to lack of employee understanding and buy-in of empowerment ideals.

Improper Training: Though employees may have a clear understanding of what they are empowered to do, they may not have the proper training to handle such expectations, leading to decision paralysis in one extreme, and poorly executed decisions in the other extreme.

Making Empowerment Effective

In order to really have an effective culture of empowerment, with employees executing empowered responsibilities properly and efficiently, you need to consider the solutions to these problems, which are:

  • Ensure managers know what to “empower.”
  • Encourage employee involvement in empowerment discussions.
  • Ensure empowerment authority is driven to the lowest appropriate level.
  • Train employees to handle empowerment responsibilities.

Ensure Managers Know What to “Empower”

For many managers, there is the ingrained belief that it is quicker to do certain tasks/make certain decisions than to train someone else how to do it. When such a task pops up, they decide to do it themselves, the task gets done, quickly and efficiently – and they can then get back to their management responsibilities.

This works well the first time, but after a manager makes the same decision two or three times the efficiency benefit has been wiped out. They are also now stuck with the task. They would have been better off, from an efficiency standpoint, setting up the systems, training, etc. to properly empower and equip staff to handle the responsibility the first time (this is especially common among managers who have been promoted from the group they are managing).

So how do you ensure managers know what to hold on to and what to empower to staff?

You first must start with clearly outlining the tasks, decisions (especially decisions), overall workflow etc. for which whole departments or divisions are responsible. With such knowledge in hand, you then work with managers to identify the activities and associated decisions that cannot be assigned through empowerment, and those that should be assigned – and to whom they should be assigned.

The outcome of this exercise is a manager’s ability to say to staff, “here are my areas – anything to do with making decisions in these areas is mine and mine alone. Anything related to these specific areas comes to me. These are your areas – anything to do with making decisions in these areas is yours and yours alone. Anything related to those areas comes to you.”

By making such a statement, a manager clearly defines empowerment expectations and associated responsibilities.

As an aside, the process of outlining and assigning empowerment responsibilities should be managed as a facilitated exercise. The reason is that as the manager is identifying areas of responsibility they want to hold on to, it is helpful to have someone challenge their decisions – asking “why” to make sure the rationale is valid. Here is an example. A manager may say, “I need to hold on to that responsibility. Why? Because I don’t have anyone trained to take it on.” This isn’t necessarily a valid reason as training issues can be overcome by, well, training. Perhaps the right decision is that the manager plan to train staff rather than hold onto a particular responsibility.

This takes time, but once done you gain immeasurable management efficiency that more than pays back the time invested. Not only that, you will have a framework that clearly shows allocated responsibilities so that as you endure turnover, staffing changes, etc. you can quickly communicate the same set of expectations to staff replacements.

Encourage Employee Involvement

The second solution is to always encourage employee involvement, a critical component of an effective empowerment culture. Most people do not like being told what to do. Even though we all have jobs with responsibilities defined by someone else, effectively being told up front what to do, we like to believe we have some freedom to define our roles as we see fit. In recognizing this human tendency when driving empowerment throughout an organization, you come to the logical conclusion that you will gain better results if you engage those to whom you want to confer empowerment during the empowerment discussion.

Going back to our previous solution, it is a very good idea to engage staff right from the beginning – when you are mapping out workflow, outlining decision points, overall task responsibilities, and the like. As you roll up your sleeves to explore these areas, have staff do the same – in either a group discussion or individually. Then, when you get to the point of sitting staff down to discuss areas of decision making empowerment (when the manager says – these areas are mine…those areas are yours), you can reflect on their own participation in helping develop the lines of empowerment. In other words, part of the work is their own, which means they have a direct connection and commitment to the defined responsibilities.

Drive Authority All The Way Down the Line

The next solution is ensuring authority is driven to the lowest appropriate level. I really don’t need to spend any time on this one here. If you do a thorough job laying out and assigning responsibilities as we just defined, then you can rest with the assurance that responsibilities are properly allocated. I do suggest, however, that you conduct a periodic review since operating environments will change – and quite often. Periodic analysis ensures that you maintain the alignment of expectations and associated responsibilities and empowerment.

Train the Right Skills

Though everyone may agree on the allocation of empowerment responsibilities, that doesn’t mean than everyone is properly equipped to take on those responsibilities. The final solution, then, is to properly train employees to act empowered.

Here is a classic example of a disconnection between training and empowerment. Many front-line member service representatives are empowered to reduce and/or waive fees charged to members. This makes perfect sense, and is an appropriate delegation of responsibility. The skill required for such responsibility, however, is the skill of negotiation – something most people are not very good at doing. We are long removed from a barter-based system of paying for goods and services, which means we get very little practice in real negotiation.

Empowerment responsibilities tied to waiving or renegotiating fees must be paired with training on negotiation. If it isn’t, the negotiation (if you can call it that), works out like this:

Credit Union Member: “I want you to waive the fee I paid on my bounced check.”

Empowered Credit Union Staffer: “Okay!”

Most credit unions train on product knowledge, compliance, system utilization, the procedures to reverse a fee – essentially hard skills. Empowerment is more related to soft skills, such as analytical thinking, negotiation, problem solving – areas that receive little attention in most credit union training programs.

Is Empowerment Worth It?

Though the path to an environment of empowered employees is simple (know what to delegate, encouraging employee involvement, drive authority to the lowest appropriate level, properly train employees), it does take time and dedicated effort. The question is whether it is worth it.

I believe it is. Empowerment can move you into the realm of high-performing credit unions. The key is making sure you understand that the concept of empowerment must be personalized – fleshed out – defined for your organization. If you really want to empower people, help them explore and understand exactly what they are empowered to do within the credit union, and then properly equip them to carry out these expectations. Once the expectations are set, understood, and the workforce properly trained, you will see your staff making decisions that are best for the organization’s long-term success – a bottom-line benefit.

You will also see another benefit emerge from effective employee empowerment. Empowered employees will begin seeking out ways to be more efficient. This is because the more engaged they are, the better you equip them, the more they will think about easier ways of doing their jobs.

Combined, efficient task allocation and decision-making, and regular consideration of operational improvements, make for a more profitable operating environment – which means that empowerment is, in fact, worth a dedicated effort.

To speak to a Glatt Consulting, LLC representative regarding empowerment as a path to improved performance, call (888) 217-5988 or complete our online contact form.

1 comment

  1. Tom,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on empowerment. Yes, empowerment will certainly win you a game of “buzzword bingo” but nothing much else if you don’t apply it across all channels of your organization. I would also add “don’t punish employees if their empowerment causes a problem.” When employees feel empowered they will make mistakes. How will management respond? If management criticizes and embarrass the employee, you can forget about ongoing empowerment. However, if management treats the mistake as a learning/teaching opportunity, then empowerment will continue.


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