07 Jun 2016 19:06 IST

What does empowering people mean?

It’s more than giving decision making powers to people

In today’s corporate world, we doubt there is anyone who hasn’t heard of ‘empowerment’. Don’t believe us? Try finding a company’s website which completely misses this word in its ‘employees’ or ‘people’ or ‘team’ pages. You won’t.

One major global conglomerate’s website threw up 164 results, when ‘empowerment’ was searched. Another famous company threw up over 100 results.

If you ask managers, “Why do you have to empower people?”, you’ll get a range of answers:

~ It helps in better performance

~ Employees will be better engaged

~ To retain talent

~ Better service

~ Faster response

Are you empowered?

And if you ask employees, ‘Are you empowered?’, many might say ‘yes’. Some may say, ‘no’. If you don’t want to directly ask the question, you can take a different track. Ask your colleagues or friends in other companies:

~ Do you feel in control of your work?

~ Can you make decisions to reach your key result areas and execute them?

~ How often do you feel helpless?

~ Do your decisions often get overturned by your boss or someone in other departments?

~ Do you feel confident enough to make your decisions?

~ Do you have necessary information, knowledge and ability to make your own work related decisions?

~ Do you feel uneasy when you face customers or people from other department when there is a problem to be solved?

Answers to the above questions will give a better picture of ‘empowerment’ in your organisation.

Why empowerment may not help

You might think that bosses are responsible for not empowering their people, and that maybe true as well. But before you make that your opinion, read out what this CEO said about a similar ‘empowering’ situation.

“Our company supplies complex automation equipment for use in factories. When I joined as a CEO, I found that our customer service was not up to the mark. Customers complained repeatedly, often escalating problems to me. One of the reasons for our delayed and unpredictable complaint resolution was that our service engineers had to get permission from their service manager for replacing parts and obtaining them from our stores.

“After consultations, we decided to authorise the service engineers to replace parts costing below a particular value (without approval) and even buy them from local markets, in case they were available off the shelf. We expected this step to address over 90 per cent of delayed cases. But a couple of weeks later, we were surprised to find service engineers still waiting for approval by the service manager. Apparently the problem was something else too.”

Now, there could be many reasons the service engineers did not use their powers.

~ Credibility: Maybe they weren’t sure about management’s intentions.

~ Relationship with manager: Or maybe they weren’t sure about how their immediate superior would feel (service manager’s insecurity).

~ Competence: They weren’t sure about their own diagnosis, about which component needed replacement.

~ Interdepartmental issues: They felt they needed to consult engineering department also(design issues).

~ Customer relations: The engineers feared that if their customers came to know about the new policy, they would demand an on-the-spot resolution of an issue, even for more costly parts.

Organisation structure and goals matter

To understand this point, let us look at two extreme organisations — military and a voluntary group.

In military, powers are clearly defined at various levels and everyone follows a code. In that sense, everybody is empowered (at least there is complete clarity). There is a clarity on how things are to be done (processes).

In a voluntary group, everybody is empowered by their own will, but there is no clarity on what (or who) supersedes what (whom). When given a specific goal, the military is more likely to be effective. The voluntary group may need to go through some iteration to achieve its goal.

The organisation structure (command and control) and processes both need to be taken into account or changed for empowerment to work and give expected benefits.

If the above issues, aren’t well thought out, if the work processes aren’t changed properly, if people aren’t trained adequately, the old jargon ‘delegation’, just gets replaced by the new jargon ‘empowerment’.

The number of times the word appears on your company’s web site is immaterial. Empowering people is much more than giving powers to people.