The Unintended Stupidity of ‘Empowerment’

Management Organizational culture Respect


Key Point: Well intended leaders may have unwittingly confused the heck out of many employees, and degraded customer experience with so called “empowerment.” Huh? Let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s say you want a certain standard of behavior in providing your customers a “WOW” experience. So, after eating all the leadership development “candy,” you decide to “EMPOWER” your team members to use their good judgment and just “WOW” the customer. Sounds good in theory. After all, you want to be a Level 5 service leader (or whatever). Ironically, what you will likely get is a “dog’s breakfast” of behavior from good intentions all around. Let me give you some mundane examples:

As the big boss, you want a “WOW” greeting for every customer that enters your retail stores. Your empowered guidance to store managers is; “use your head and give a great greeting.” At one store, every customer is met with eye contact and a warm welcome when they enter. Individuals make a personal connection. At another store, they do the same AND have a small, fun greeting gift for each customer. At the next store, staff interprets greeting differently because the empowered store manager believes customers should be left alone and not badgered. Etc etc. Empowerment results in mixed, varied experiences by well meaning, “engaged” employees, committed to the customer service ethos and a great customer experience. To make matters possibly worse, a customer complains about being ignored at the store where there is no greeting. So what does the top brass default to? The explanation is that the store manager doesn’t have the “DNA;” let’s replace the person with “someone who gets it.” It’s actually the top leadership that needs a shake.

Another example might be in a financial institution where expert credit adjudication scores allow for customers to receive loans or credit up to $x limit. Yet, when the data is reviewed, top leaders find out that time and again, well intended, highly engaged, “empowered” team members continuously turn down “approved” customer loans and/or underfund well below guidance. Why? Well one explanation is that empowered employees feel very protective of the institution and become very risk averse, even though experts and guidance tells them otherwise. Top leaders, while very well meaning and “evolved,” exhort loan officers and tell them they are fully empowered to make loan/credit decisions. But that “empowerment” results in consistently under performing loan portfolios and disappointed customers. Subsequently, with best intentions all around, everyone loses. The root cause is likely faulty thinking and guidance at the top.  

Leadership Moves:

  1. Leaders need to be absolutely clear and definitive on minimum acceptable experience/performance standards. There should be little if any discretion on the minimum. Inviting employees to be empowered is most effective when people are able to use judgment exceeding minimum thresholds. In that case variation can be (although not always) very constructive. In the situation above involving the financial institution, minimum loan limits ideally would be set by artificial intelligence, ever learning algorithms. NO discretion below the minimum would be allowed. It is more than ok to tell loan officers that they are NOT empowered to adjust down. Empowerment should be granted in other areas where judgment and human intervention upgrades rather than diminishes the customer experience.
  2. Be absolutely clear where you “empower” and provide meaningful autonomy. Do not burden your employees with “empowered” license when in reality you want something very specific. That’s when “empowerment” becomes an excuse for lazy leadership that has NOT done the hard work to be clear connecting purpose with very defined expectations. Do not hope empowered employees will deliver the experience you want when you primarily lead and give feedback on what you “don’t” want.

Right Empowerment in Personal Leadership,


One Millennial View: This reminds me of the popular fast food franchise, Chick-fil-A, and something I’ve noticed as a patron at their restaurants. All employees are empowered to have a minimum requirement for politeness. You’ll hear “please” and “thank you” from employees, but most notably: Instead of saying “you’re welcome,” you’ll always hear a Chick-fil-A employee say “my pleasure.” It’s very subtle, but this extra courtesy absolutely stands out. And this simple (and free) customer service upgrade is why Business Insider and other publications have written articles about how the average annual sales per restaurant reach $4 million, compared to the $1 million average their competitor KFC brings in.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis