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The Dangerous Truth about Employee Empowerment Every HR Director Should Learn

by | Aug 8, 2016

Employee Empowerment Risks

“If we toned down our reporting standards, we could sell more,” said Erin, a sales leader at a large company. “If you make the reporting less burdensome, it would free people up to close deals. It would empower them to use their time their way.”

Erin was saying this to his recently appointed CEO—let’s call her Aleesa—during an executive off-site.

“That’s fine by me,” said Aleesa. “Let’s see where we end up.”

This scene actually took place.

The dialogue is made up, but the sentiment is accurate.

Michael Schrage wrote a piece about it in the Harvard Business Review. He explained that the company did, in fact, honor the sales team’s request to ease the reporting requirements.

Leadership saw this request as an opportunity to invest in their employees’ happiness and empowerment, while simultaneously boosting everyone’s accountability, which, in turn, they assumed would improve performance.

But it didn’t work out that way. Here’s the results breakdown:

  • The Good: sales increased for a handful of high performers.
  • The Bad: most people continued to sell at the same rate but, in the process, also hurt the Marketing and Customer Service departments by submitting subpar reporting.
  • The Awful: 20% of the team suffered a measurable sales drop.

The empowerment play was a bust.

The lesson (the truth): empowerment doesn’t work for everyone.

When it does work, it’s great: people report being happier and more fulfilled at work; people perform better. The point, however, is that giving an employee more responsibility, autonomy, and accountability is… risky. There’s no guarantee people will respond well.

Which begs: why do some fail when empowered? Possibly because it’s a big step, one that demands experience and ongoing support. It requires a solid foundation from which to push off. Therefore, before “empowering” someone—before raising the gate and stepping out of their way—managers and HR leaders should do what they can to ensure that person is ready.

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How to Mitigate Your Empowerment Risk

How to Mitigate Your Empowerment Risk

According to Derek Irvine, a foremost expert on employee recognition and engagement, after an employee is empowered with more autonomy, “companies need to make sure that elements are in place to continue supporting employee performance.”

Below are several “elements” that he suggests will drive and guide that performance.

“These practices signal to employees what performance looks like and how it can be achieved,” writes Irvine, “aligning behavior while increasing motivation across different levels of performers.”

Here’s what you do:

1. Shape a mission-driven culture.

Talented, hardworking people are attracted to for-profit companies that also have a mission, a greater purpose. A company mission is a sign of enduring values and smart, strong leadership. Many great companies have one.

In business, money creates a logical pull. A mission, then, serves to create an emotional one. An emotional pull that fosters positivity, momentum, and loyalty. These traits give empowered workers the drive and stamina to perform. How does your organization’s success help the world? The right response to that question could move mountains.

“Talented, hardworking people are attracted to for-profit companies that also have a mission, a greater purpose.”

2. Create a “Core Values” recognition system.

Core Values are the building blocks of a company’s identity.

They’re also perennial; they don’t change or morph with the times. For example, Work Hard, Play Hard, isn’t a sustainable Core Value because, well, what if times are lean?

A company’s values should be timeless, like an individual’s character traits: Accountability; Balance; Community; Integrity; Safety; Empowerment. When you consistently and publicly reward employees based on their execution of these values, you’re sending a clear and potent message: we like what you’re doing… keep doing it. People appreciate that.

“A company’s values should be timeless.”

3. Incentivize.

Whether you’re empowering a team of people (the way Aleesa did) or a single individual, incentivizing their performance is a proven way to create traction and drive.

Salaried or hourly, full-time or part-time, employees who are rewarded for their decisions—especially ones they made independently—will continue to chase the satisfaction their progress brings.

NOTE: When designing an incentive program, be sure to keep it simple. Focus on the positive. Also, use reward points, not specific prizes, to create a program everyone can build on and eventually succeed at.”

“When designing an incentive program, use reward points.”

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Imagine what could have been…

What could have been if Aleesa’s people were incentivized, recognized, and driven by mission—by a sense of purpose—rather than by hard numbers alone? “Removing the reporting burdens against this backdrop could very well have improved effectiveness on a much wider scale,” writes engagement and recognition expert, Derek Irvine.

If nothing else, it’s important to take away that Aleesa, the CEO, didn’t invest in employee empowerment, per se. She invested in employee accountability, productivity, and innovation. Empowerment is about the employee in many ways but, ultimately, the real benefactor is the employer. The benefits bubble up.

Therefore, as a leader, whether you’re in management or HR or at the C-suite table, you can’t expect to “empower” people and then just let them loose. That’s dangerous for everyone. You could lose productivity. Worse yet, you could lose talent…

Failing employees can become disengaged, which could lead to costly employee turnover. For example, a CAP study found that:

  • The average cost to replace a mid-range position ($30K – $50K per year): 20% of the annual salary.
  • The average cost to replace a specialized executive position (more than $100K per year): 213% of the annual salary!

Therefore, stay mindful of the commitment your empowered employees have taken on, and make it a point to continuously help them, support them, and empathize with them through programs, culture and, of course, technology, as well.

That’s the best insurance policy you can buy.

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