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How To Empower Employees?

Submitted by Kamal Wickramanayake on July 10, 2007 - 13:07


One of my friends who is working in a big company in Sri Lanka called me today and explained a most unwanted experience:

"My boss wants everything to happen through him. He asks me not to pursue new initiatives of my own, not to interact with people in other divisions unless such collaborations or communications are authorized by him.

I have been interacting with members of other departments from the beginning and was collaboratively working with them in the past. I have made positive contributions to the company. This has improved my image in the company and now my boss wants to put constraints which will limit my contributions for no clear reason. He says everything - even trivial matters - should happen through him.

Most of the employees in my company are good at doing the assigned work and then rest freely. But I have been proactively pursuing many initiatives and now I am frustrated of this situation. I am thinking of possible solutions including leaving the company."

According to the lengthy discussion we had, the problem is mostly to do with the fear the superior has grown over the popularity of my friend. Fear is for potential lose of his identity and dominance over the department activities coupled with jealousy.

Power Silos

Building silos of power in companies is a measure some employees in higher ranks pursue to stabilize their own positions. Dominance illusively makes a boss an always wanted resource in getting any work done from the department. It is not because the department employees are unable to work without him, but of the need to make the other people 'feel' the presence of the boss for the purpose of securing his position (by means of showing that the boss is a valuable entity where others cannot live without). Typical effects are: delay in services, delay in operations, improper solutions to problems, poor improvement, poor innovation, frustrated  customers, frustrated employees,...

Need For Bosses

But why do we need and have bosses in the first place? We surely need the presence of responsibility and control in our work places. Lack of control is a proven solution for failure in any environment. Control is the means by which a company's growth is managed, services and operations are performed with satisfaction and maintain the integrity. Control can be implemented in many ways. A natural solution is to have a responsible boss.

While control is always required, the problem with over controlling is what causes the damage. Just having a dominating boss is far from a proven solution for a business to success. An ideal boss in this regard is one who collaboratively sets goals for his/her team, drives them, monitors performance indicators, supports employees to innovate and benchmarks and takes measures to improve adaptability of the department for new challenges. Apparently, no formula for business success is seen which considers a dominating boss a positive contribution among knowledged workers.

Empowered Employees

In modern days, more and more organizations focus on empowering employees where responsibility and authority to make decisions are transfered from the director board down to anyone doing the leg work. If actionable information is made available in their hands (possibly with strategic IT solutions) and with enough power do make decisions, employees naturally orient themselves towards success. Empowering employees is a proven technique for business success.

If the environment to make the correct decision is established properly (with timely and accurate information), the chances of making a wrong decision by an employee are negligible. What is required is to create an environment where assumptions are discouraged but act on facts. One may wish to read the blog entry Toyota's Lean Manufacturing Issues which is a discussion about a similar case.

Empowerment Vs Control

In an empowered employee environments, bosses are innovation oriented. They find time for clearing the barriers encountered by employees and focus on business performance improvement.

Controlling is still required, but informed bosses take controlling as yet another tool to facilitate accomplishment of business objectives and goals. Controlling is just secondary, performance is what matters. For the 'ill-formed' bosses, what is secondary is performance.

Boss Can Misunderstand His/Her Role

There is enough possibility that by the time you appoint someone to a controlling position, he or she forgets about the performance part sooner or later. It can happen to individuals and also to entier departments or organizations.

For example, if one thinks that the purpose of having Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC - That's what we have here in Sri Lanka.) is to manage the growth of telecommunications industry, it is far from a valuable entity to Sri Lanka. Instead, I would like to visualize TRC as an entity that grows telecommunications industry. But their focus is different as highlighted by the vision (found here): "To be at the forefront of telecommunications regulation.". Not performance focused, but control. Let's hope that they will change their directions!

Ground Rules For Empowered Employees

NSTAR Global Services which is into semiconductor business has set up the following guidelines for its employees. If the answers for all the questions are "yes", don't ask, do it.

  1. Is it right for the customer?
  2. Is it right for NSTAR?
  3. Is it ethical?
  4. Is it something for which you're willing to be accountable?
  5. Is it consistent with NSTAR's basic beliefs and values?

Back To Power Hungry Boss Problem Of My Friend

While there is 80% chance that my friend has found a lousy boss according to what he told me, there is some possibility that the boss is unknowingly trying to maintain integrity in his division. Integrity matters. But to maintain integrity, there are better solutions. For example, a daily or weekly huddle can easily solve many such problems and bring more value to the company. Here's a good example. It's not difficult to find similar mechanisms to maintain integrity among empowered employees while retaining control. Many solutions will root back to a well formed organizational culture.

Anther reason might be that the boss is keen to get my friend to focus on the set goals since getting engaged with too many other activities can slow down the march towards strategically identifies goals.

I told my friend not to assume, but to discuss with the superior and find out what exactly his (boss's) views are. Surely a lousy boss will not reveal the facts, but at least a discussion would show the symptoms of inferior management or reveal that the acts of the boss were due to a different reason which he failed to articulate clearly. Making decisions based on facts but not on assumptions is always preferred.

If a boss hiding selfish agendas is found, it is always easier to leave (to another department or company) than to confront. Life is not that difficult to find a different way ahead. And life is not to be wasted for unproductive efforts. has some good guidelines for victims though:)