Let’s paint a typical scenario that sets the stage. Senior leadership has called for a company meeting to discuss the “new direction” of the organization.
“In order to be competitive, we must radically change how we conduct business and figure out new ways to better serve our customers,” barks the executive on stage while going through 40-50 powerpoint slides on why we need to change.
He or she then goes on say that the only way we can accomplish this is through hard work and the dedication of our top notch employees. The “rah rah” speech goes on for another 15 minutes and at the end, he or she says that it is up to all of you to figure out how to meet the objectives of this new direction. They say, “You are the key to our future success and everyone is empowered to make changes that are good for the company!”
For the most part, employees are excited about the new direction and are anxious to hear more from their managers. Managers get the edict from senior management that “task teams” are being created to attack these issues. They are looking for volunteers to participate in crafting the solutions to the assigned issue or problem.
You volunteer for a team since it is an area that you have expertise in and you see it as an opportunity to showcase your skills to your boss and to upper management. You also see it as an opportunity to drive real change in the company and you are excited about that.
Your team works hard on this project in addition to performing your regular full time job. The team’s recommendations are radical but based on sound reasoning and supported by facts. You put together the final presentation and the team gets a golden opportunity to present the recommendations to upper management. The presentation goes very well, the team is excited and the upper management team commends all of you for your hard work and a job well done. They also tell you they will review the recommendations some more and will get back to you on next steps.
Your team hears nothing for weeks. You press management for next steps because everyone was excited about moving forward with the recommendations and now, some of that excitement is waning. Finally, you get word back from a secondary source that management, although they appreciate all the work the team did, decided that the recommendations didn’t really fit with where they wanted to go.
Does any of this ring true based on your experiences? This scenario can be a huge culture killer. Let’s assess the potential damage.
1. Employees felt like they were lied to by the executive team (i.e. told they were empowered when they were not). This creates anger and distrust of senior management.
2. Employees feel like their hard work was all for nothing and was not valued by management. They made sacrifices to be a part of something they believed in and something they thought would make a difference.
3. Additional distrust for senior management since it appears they already decided a direction prior to the team’s input.
4. These team members will not volunteer for another project for a long time or maybe never. If they are forced to be a part of a team again, they certainly won’t make sacrifices or go the extra mile because their work has been thrown away in the past.
5. They will view future initiatives as the latest “flavor of the month” that will not work and could negatively influence the attitudes of newer co-workers.
Now the big question becomes how to prevent this from happening. This responsibility rests completely on the senior management team. Here are some thoughts to consider if you are in the executive suite.
1. Gain a clear understanding of your company’s culture and employee’s state of mind before making decisions. It’s important to fully evaluate the impact the decision will have on employees. Will this decision anger employees? Will it squash future creativity? Will it discourage employees from getting involved in other projects? The point is not that the decision shouldn’t still be made but that the impact on employees should be discussed before the decision is made and an action plan to address these issues should be in place prior to communicating the decision.
2. Don’t “empower” people unless you are really going to do it. Executives must take some risk when empowering since they won’t have control over the outcome. However, you can mitigate the risk up front by providing the ground rules for the project and the team is empowered to come up with solutions within predefined guidelines. For example, the guidelines the effort could be: a) the solution must have a payback period of less than two years; b) you can spend up to 500,000 on the problem; and c) you will be responsible for implementing the solution and for showing the payback was achieved.
3. Celebrate Successes – If you empower a team and they deliver within the guidelines you set forth, then reward those employees with recognition and financial rewards based on the benefits of the project. Also, communicate the successes over and over again to all employees via email, newsletters, company meetings etc.
You need to show everyone that you delivered on your word of “empowerment” and that people are rewarded for volunteering for projects and delivering solutions that benefit the company. This creates new energy and positive word of mouth which should increase future participation in projects.
If done properly, true “empowerment” of your employees leads to happier and more engaged employees. This lowers turnover, encourages risk taking and enhances creativity which leads to improved business results.