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Misinterpreting employee empowerment

The supervisors’ union is testing the limits of our employee empowerment program when it encouraged those affected to “do what they want to do within their job description.” A case in point is when a supervisor allowed his unit to work almost without close supervision on the condition that they meet their daily production quota. The trouble is that several team members are complaining they’re required to take up the slack for two to three workers who come in late and leave early as soon as they’re nearing the team’s daily quota. What’s the cure? — Banana Boat.

Clearly, the concerned supervisor has no clear understanding of the limits of empowerment. Even if one is empowered, that person can’t do what he wants to do even if their group is meeting the production quota as exemplified by the subject complaint raised by some team members.

There’s no question that employee empowerment is important. “When employees feel empowered at work, it is associated with stronger job performance, job satisfaction and commitment to the organization,” according to the 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Allan Lee, Sara Willis and Amy Wei Tian.

“Many leaders today often try to empower their employees by delegating authority and decision-making, sharing information and asking for their input. But our recent research found that this style of leadership works best in motivating certain types of performance and certain types of employees.”

In other words, not all employees can benefit from empowerment, especially those who lack the discipline to fully support and cooperate with their team members who are forced to work hard for them.

SOLUTIONSIt’s not too late to fix the situation, especially if you have a pending complaint from other team members who feel aggrieved. With or without a supervisors’ union, you can always correct this problem by issuing a memorandum clarifying the specific limits of their authority to be empowered:

First, recognize how empowerment has improved work operations. Cite specific accomplishments of the program and reward people for their milestones. It’s important to give factual and verifiable records of “before and after” situations to justify the many advantages of empowerment. It’s important to emphasize this because you don’t want to suspend or cancel an empowerment program due to this isolated incident.

Second, review the empowerment policy, if there’s any. Discover the missing link of the policy in the actual situation and other foreseeable situations that could happen. Focus on what the supervisors and their teams can handle. This means making a distinction between what’s routine and what’s extraordinary.

For complicated, unusual and sensitive matters, the supervisor’s authority is limited to giving top three recommended solutions, arranged according to the order of priority for management approval.

Third, define the terms and conditions of empowerment. In general, empowerment is several steps higher than what we know about simple delegation. No matter how you define empowerment and the amount of authority you’re willing to extend to all supervisors, ensure that top management or its representative is not blindsided by issues like what you have now.

In other words, management should have the veto power to override a supervisor’s decision if it would result in a bigger issue, like the case of our imperfect attendance record that resulted in the inequality of contributions from team members.

Lastly, meet with all supervisors and their team members. Explain in detail what level of independence that they can enjoy and their limitations. Allow a question-and-answer hour to discuss specific issues, even hypothetical ones that may not be covered by the memorandum. As much as possible, give a clear answer and avoid telling them vague answers like “Let’s cross the bridge when we get there.”

TESTING THE LIMITSThere’s no point in making a conclusion that the supervisors’ union is “testing the limits” of your employee empowerment program in the absence of a clear proof. It’s not a politically correct strategy. Otherwise, if you’ll continue putting malice on anyone, including the supervisor’s union, and you’ll make it difficult to resolve the issue.

The best approach is to treat everyone with respect and go direct to the point in resolving the issue right away, up to the extent of ignoring other peripheral issues that may not help at all. Ask yourself this important question: Do you trust the supervisors and their union that they are ready to be empowered and capable of handling sensitive issues?

If your answer is yes, then you’re on the right path. Empowerment is all about trusting the supervisor’s judgment call and that all supervisors similarly situated can make a sound decision. Therefore, accept the fact that not all supervisors will embrace the idea of empowering their workers with open arms.

Some may not even like it for its increased responsibility. If that happens, be alert to any eventuality without losing focus of the fact that empowerment is one best approach that could be misinterpreted from time to time.

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