When It Comes to Empowerment Are You Shifting Power or Simply Passing the Buck?

Updated: January 5, 2022

Reading Time: 5 minutes


Many corporate executives see empowerment, stewardship, and benchmarking as the way to a healthy future. Like most modern management theories, these concepts have merit in principle. Too often, however, they fall short of expectations in execution.Certainly the vision of people in a creative environment working hard to match or exceed the performance of
their competitors is enticing and worthwhile. Cutting organizational levels to increase the accuracy and speed of communications is a step toward shaping a creative environment. Establishing business centers that encompass manufacturing as well as marketing and sales is also desirable because it fosters cooperation instead of blame-placing.

Why, then, does the innately worthwhile concept of empowerment too frequently fail to achieve its intended
results? Six steps are essential before empowerment can work effectively:

• Establish a long-term purpose and vision
• Carefully select those to be empowered and define what they are empowered to do
• Recognize and build upon the existing base of experience in the company
• Train adequately those expected to assume power and responsibility
• Create genuine trust between management and employees
• Convey to the empowered a true sense of stewardship for the company’s future.

Purpose and Vision

An employee told, “You are empowered,” may well wonder what he is empowered to accomplish. Are we
empowering employees to create a future or to perform what they normally perform better? Unfortunately, the latter prevails more than the former. At the plant level, dedicated, intelligent people try to do a good job for today. This approach is akin to a survival mode.

Seldom do people at the manufacturing level have a purpose. This attitude occurs because there is no rallying cause for them to embrace and in which to become involved. They have not received the message in a way that connects them as individuals to the visionary purpose of the company.

In their book Competing for the Future*, Hamel and Prahalad urge corporations that want to be around in the next millennium to define their futures in terms of what they want their industries to achieve. Unfortunately, the task of reinventing companies for the future is very difficult. When we work at something for some time, we develop thought patters that eventually become deep-seated values. These mindsets must be overcome. Smaller and newer companies can exercise more intellectual freedom in designing their visions because they are not so encumbered by restraining industry and company mindsets.

Mindsets of experience must be overcome and unfrozen by introducing new, critical thinking into strategic
design sessions. Use a provocative facilitator and currently evolving, group think strategies that show promise in promoting a free range of thinking in the development of strategic positions.

Emerging visions must be truly futuristic. They must use core competencies, yet seek new functionalities.
They must be exciting, based on a societal good, and not offend the core values of those empowered to achieve them. They must be simple to visualize from both a business and social standpoint. They must embrace growth and provide a measure of job security.

The Selection Process

Empowerment often sounds like something we do to the people who work for us. By definition, empowerment means “to authorize someone to exercise power.” Some components of empowerment make empowerment difficult, or even impossible, to achieve. A corporation cannot let everyone wield power. Confusion and chaos would result. Limits must be set and power exercised to achieve a purpose.

Empowerment must be defined in company terms. Who will be empowered? For what purpose? A vision
provides the primary purpose, but each department, group, or team has the component visions that must be
achieved. Empowerment must mean people are free to cross disciplines.

To achieve empowerment yet avoid confusion, managers should appoint champions. Champions should not add bureaucracy to the system, but should act to open doors for information and settle disputes.

Selection criteria should be formulated to ensure people have the proper characteristics, training, and experience to be empowered. If the process does not cause discomfort amount executives, it is not culture changing. It is business as usual and not a prescription for the future.

Tap the Experience

Although new thinking is necessary, our core competencies are our experience pool, the foundation on which the future is built. It is vital to know your competencies before the future vision is designed. What is done well? What sets your operation apart from others? Whether the issues are hard or soft, they must be identified and understood. Empowerment means proper use and nurturing of needed core competencies.

Train Adequately

Without training, the application of empowerment has no consistency or order. What are the limits of a
person’s empowerment? Are they based on a set of criteria? Will empowerment change as experience and trust increase? How will it be monitored and measured? These questions need to be answered and included in the training sessions.

People may need to learn new skills, including listening, questioning, mentoring, and conflict resolution.
Companies should engage organizational development consultants to provide confidential mentoring services to those empowered. In other words, training should be custom designed.

Creating Trust

At a recent conference on trust, few speakers spoke directly to the subject. They didn’t seem to know what to say about it except that is nice to have. Yet, empowerment is about transferring power away from owners and executives, a strong trust issue.

Trust is developed by actions that exhibit fairness and communications that explain deviations. When one
person feels the actions of another in a given situation can be predicted, trust exists. When a team works well together, members trust and respect each other. How, then, does a company build trust in this era of rightsizing and downsizing?

Developing a vision of purpose and the means to communicate that vision are steps toward trust. Training
people well so they can gain the future is a step toward trust. Giving people the space and support to be creative is a step toward trust. But the biggest step is involving them and sharing the fruits of the accomplishments.

Build Stewardship

Stewardship implies all employees will oversee and nurture the assets of the owners of the company.
Stewardship requires a paradigm shift, a change in traditional thinking about the way work is allocated.
Traditionally, management assigns tasks. Under empowerment, stewards select their own tasks. This shift
requires several prerequisites:

• Outline specific criteria for selecting stewards
• Define good stewardship and communicate its rewards
• Make training a prerequisite. Have a trainer act as a mentor until the trainees develop the
required skills.

Stewards are asset managers. Undoubtedly, they will exercise their stewardship in ways that conflict with
traditional thinking. Call on your champions to intervene here to resolve the interpersonal disputes that most
assuredly will occur. Stewards should meet regularly to exchange experiences and to support one another.

Finally, a word needs to be said about benchmarking. Empowering people to perform daily tasks is not
empowerment. It is delegation. Empowerment and stewardship take on new meaning when associated with a noble and exciting purpose. That is why vision is so important. Benchmarking defeats this purpose. Its
message is to judge ourselves in terms of others. Benchmarking against others is not a useful part of creating the future. Comparing your rate of progress toward your vision against your strategic plan is worthwhile.

Management sincere about power must function on two levels. The familiar role is to set expectations and the measure needed to achieve a future of continuing opportunity. The unfamiliar one, to which managers must be equally committed, is to serve those they have empowered. This role may be difficult, but if we truly want to transfer power, we must be committed to the mechanisms that make it work.

About the Author

Charles J. Latino, (1929-2007) Founder of Reliability Center, Inc., was a chemical engineer with a background in psychology and human factors engineering. He was a leader in the development of an integrated approach to achieving greater reliability in manufacturing and industrial systems and processes. He served as consultant to many companies in the United States and abroad. He is the author of Strive for Excellence…The Reliability Approach. He has left his Reliability legacy to his wife and five children who continue to spread his visionary Reliability Approach to companies throughout the world.

Literature cited:
Swain, A.D., and H.E. Guttman, “Handbook of Human Reliability Analysis with Emphasis on Nuclear Power Plant Applications,” Sandia Labs, Albuquerque, NM for U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Oct., 1980)


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