Building a culture that allows for empowerment takes courage, commitment and vision.

Blog by Peter Dove

Shared Values Associates

My wife, Kathleen, and I recently visited my daughter Haley’s in-laws in Las Vegas. A small, spontaneous poolside party took shape so Haley went with two friends to a neighborhood chain sandwich shop for refreshments.

No one was in the shop except two employees so she went to the clerk and said, “I’d like to order 10 sandwiches to go please.”

The clerk said, “Well, that would be a party order and our policy says we need 24 hours’ notice.”

Haley, a bit puzzled at this stated the obvious; “There is no one in the store or the parking lot for that matter. There are two of you here with no orders to work on, couldn’t you just make the sandwiches”?

“You’d think so,” replied the clerk, “but that would be against our policy.”

She thought about this for a moment and said, “Well I’d like to order three sandwiches for me, would that be within the rules?”

“Certainly” replied the young and well-intentioned clerk. Her friend also ordered three sandwiches as did the third and all slept well that night knowing that the 24-hour party order rule was kept intact.

I wonder if the CEO of the chain would have slept well in his home on the east coast that night if he had known about my daughter’s experience.

Just about all companies these days say they want empowered employees, but there are some rubs.

  • Can they be trusted?
  • Will they comply with policies and procedures and what about the law?
  • What happens if they err?
  • What if they take advantage of the situation?

Empowerment is fine as long as all goes well. What happened to the last brave soul who was empowered and took a risk? The motives for empowerment are laudable: speed to market, customer service, continuous improvement, and actualization of both line and staff functions and the intrinsic motivation that results, which is the durable competitive advantage.

So how do you get people to be empowered and stay that way? It begins with the CEO and senior management framing the question and making a firm and heartfelt decision of yes or no.

Building a culture that allows for empowerment takes courage, commitment and vision because it will be a contest of wills as all change initiatives provoke.

Here is an example of a frame; it might be something like this: The keen internal vision is for all of our people to both feel and be safe in taking appropriate risks for the organization’s sake.  The expectation is for all employees to be proactive in serving the internal and external customers by using their own best judgment. 

Proper framing by the senior team is an imperative and requires much thought and conversation in order to minimize the UC’s (unintended consequences) so go slow here. So, the frame is established, now what?

All organizations have a culture. The question is this; is the culture by default or by design? The sad answer is that the culture is usually one by default. It is important to keep in mind that a corporate culture is organic, that is to say it is something grown. The fruit of the culture can be empowerment or it can be dictatorial control, it depends on the roots.

Space here does not allow for a comprehensive conversation about corporate culture design or empowerment, but here are a few main roots that must be established for empowerment to become possible.

  • Trust
  • Freedom
  • A transaction zone mindset

These three roots can only be established by and through shared values. Empowerment cannot be established by some program, mandate or announcement. One does not “brand” their way to empowerment. Which values must be institutionalized so that trust, freedom and transaction zone thinking can be established?

Empowered employees are often more productive employees.

Research shows there are eight values beyond fair pay and workplace safety that must be shared by all in the organization in order to have the right culture for empowerment. Seventeen million people from 40 countries in 32 industries say this is what they need to be empowered and volunteer their hearts and minds.

The Eight Heroic Values

1. Treat others with uncompromising truth.

2. Lavish trust on your associates.

3. Mentor unselfishly.

4. Be receptive to new ideas regardless of their origin.

5. Take personal risks for the organization’s sake.

6. Give credit where it’s due.

7. Do not touch dishonest dollars.

8. Put the interests of others before our own.

Now, let’s look at the three main roots of trust, freedom and transaction zone thinking in light of shared values. Trust is the foundation of all relationships whether at work or at home.

I’ll take your orders boss, because I’m a good soldier but I won’t take your empowerment if I don’t trust you. Empowerment has to be a win for both the organization and the individual. Faced with making the choice between the right thing and the safe thing, many employees will choose the safe thing just like the clerk in the sandwich shop.

Penguins mass on the edge of the ice to force one of their number into the water to see if a leopard seal may be lurking nearby. Is it safe to risk going into the water where you work? The trust root becomes more possible when the next root is healthy and growing and that root is truth.

Have you ever had a boss that if you were to tell him or her the uncompromising truth, it could have been a career-limiting event? Most of us have. It must be safe for all regardless of station to be able to tell the unvarnished, uncompromising truth. The truth will set you free. Here are some common sense truth guidelines to establish with your people.

  1. Am I discussing the issue with the other person within 24 hours?
  2. Am I asking the other person for permission, “Is this a good time to talk?”
  3. Am I approaching the other person in a non-threatening way?
  4. Is my language simple, polite, understandable, non-apologizing and non-personal?
  5. Am I making a request of the other person and not a complaint? Is my request telling the other person how I would like it to be?

Establishing these two roots of truth and trust take time. Let’s say we have some solid trust established and difficult conversations regularly occur from line to staff and visa versa within agreed, established guidelines. An adult-to-adult environment is being established. So far so good, now for the third root to make empowerment come alive: transaction zone thinking.

Transaction zone thinking is the moment of truth. My daughter asks for 10 sandwiches and the clerk is now in the transaction zone. It’s time for a decision. Do I keep the party rule policy intact and refuse the customer, knowing full well that there is no harm to the company, community or team in making 10 sandwiches or do I seize my freedom?

Do I trust that my choice will be perceived as acting in good faith to honestly please the customer and make the 10 sandwiches? If my decision goes against me is it celebrated as a learning experience or is my freedom eroded? In the end, empowerment is about the employee feeling safe in using their own good judgment and management trusting them and giving them credit for doing so. Your choice is freedom or control.

About the Author

Peter Dove, is president of Shared Values Associates, a firm dedicated to corporate culture design. Learn more about Peter Dove at www.peterdove.com.