Empowerment. Such a woody word, as Monty Python would quip. Unfortunately, it’s joined other “Business Bullshit Bingo” buzzwords like “Alignment”, “Accountability” and “Leverage” –overused and diluted to the point of becoming meaningless.
We talk a lot about empowering our employees, but what does that really mean? Generally, it means we want them to make decisions on their own, instead of coming to The Boss for all the answers. We want them to “Think Outside the Box” (another popular square on Bullshit Bingo.) “Surprise and delight our customers”, we entreat. “Use your heads! Be the face of the company! Do good things!”
Lovely words, and lovely concepts, until someone screws up. It’s how you act THEN that truly defines how much you’ve empowered your employees.
The flip side of granting power to make decisions is granting forgiveness for failures. The cost of empowerment is the risk, and the eventuality, that some choices will be mistakes.
I used to get a huge chuckle (and migraine) over the performance evaluation criteria at one of my former employers. “Risk-taking” was touted as a highly desirable leadership quality. But in practice, what it really meant was “we want you to take chances, but only if they work out well.” If it turned out that your risk was a failure… well then, you were penalized on the other criteria for “Flawless Execution” and “Sound Business Judgment.” Hmmmm… that makes it pretty risky to be risky, now doesn’t it? It’s no surprise that innovation and creativity have all but ground to a halt at that organization.
Let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about encouraging employees to act with reckless abandon. My point is that a risk is, by definition, risky! Our words of empowerment may be well-intentioned, but are we really walking that talk?
A blog post by Jonathan Vehar really got me thinking. Take a moment to check out his article “Learning or Failing? The Value of Making Mistakes” http://www.creativity-portal.com/articles/jonathan-vehar/learning-failing-value-mistakes.html. I’ve oft repeated that famous business yarn about the employee at (INSERT LARGE COMPANY NAME ) who was called into the CEO’s office after making a $10 million mistake. Expecting to be fired, he hung his head sorrowfully, only to be told that he would not lose his job –because the company had just invested $10 million in his training. I so want that story to be true! It may be hyperbole, but it’s the right idea.
Vehar’s article does go on to cite a verifiable example of such behavior by Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor. “Mr. David Sokol, [chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway’s MidAmerican Energy subsidiary] recalls bracing for an August 2004 meeting at which he planned to break the news to Mr. Buffett that the Iowa utility needed to write off about $360 million for a soured zinc project. Mr. Sokol says he was stunned by Mr. Buffett’s response: ‘David, we all make mistakes.’ Their meeting lasted only 10 minutes. ‘I would have fired me if I was him,’ Mr. Sokol says. ‘If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t make decisions,’ Mr. Buffett says. ‘You can’t dwell on them.’ Mr. Buffett notes that he has made ‘a lot bigger mistakes’ himself than Mr. Sokol did.”
Here are some powerful ways to walk the talk of empowerment:
- When an employee comes to you with a problem, resist giving an answer. Lead the person through solution-thinking instead, and allow them to arrive at an answer themselves. This will encourage self-reliance for decision-making.
- When an employee makes a mistake, focus on the learning, not the error.
- Make failure an expectation of the job. Follow the example of Bill Gates, who, as quoted in Vehar’s article, rebuked his direct reports at a product development review meeting– “You’re not failing enough! Next time, I want to see four times more failures and what you’ve learned from it.”
Remember the line from Warren Bufffet: “If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t make decisions.” Read that line again. If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t make decisions. And consider this– if someone can’t make decisions, then they aren’t truly empowered. So ask yourself, are you walking the talk? And more importantly… are you making mistakes?