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YE Ji-Eun

Overcoming the Obstacles of Empowering Employees

YE Ji-Eun

Sept. 5, 2012

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Company heads obviously cannot keep their hands in every facet of operations to efficiently make daily decisions. Delegating authority thus is imperative. While this seems simple to grasp, many leaders have difficulties in ceding control. Whatever the reason, the unwillingness typically manifests itself into three main obstacles.

The first is apprehensiveness. Specifically, it is the notion that empowering employees will diminish one's power and therefore will threaten one's position. However, empowering employees should be seen not from the perspective of "sharing" authority but rather "expanding" it. That is, it is a zero-sum game where one side is giving the authority while one side is receiving it. By handing the reins to employees and allowing them to exercise their own prerogative, it will encourage them to display their talent and acumen. As a result the recognition and clout of both the organization's leader and its members will rise. According to leadership expert John C. Maxwell's "paradox of delegating authority," the more leaders empower their employees, the more their own authority will increase.

The second is mistrust. There may be times when leaders question whether employees have the ability to successfully execute important assignments. To remove the apprehension, employees must be given the opportunity and tools to develop their capabilities and succeed. In 2008, Starbucks simultaneously closed 7,000 of its U.S. stores. For three hours, Starbucks sacrificed customer orders to provide barista training. The endeavor was aimed at reviving the "Starbucks experience" for customers by reeducating employees on the ways to make a perfect cup of java and creating a better coffeehouse atmosphere. Of course, constant coaching and feedback is essential to enhancing employees' expertise. At Ericsson, managers and employees gather six times a year to discuss ways to enhance employees' expertise.

Also, when delegating, employees should also be given challenging assignments. Obviously it is a mistake to give employees tasks that they are not equipped to handle. Conversely, it is wrong to give them tasks that are too easy as they could develop a certain mannerism with regards to their work. By giving employees tasks with a higher degree of difficulty than what they are used to, the small successes they reap will build up their confidence and willingness to face bigger challenges. University of Michigan professor Karl E. Weick calls this the 'Small Wins Strategy.' 'P&G' implements its "Early Responsibility Program" for new employees who are given assignments that get them to understand the entire spectrum of their responsibilities and are then provided with support to gain more experience.

Lastly, when it is believed that employees have built up a certain amount of capability, leaders should absolutely acknowledge their autonomy. At the internet shopping site Zappos, call-center employees are not provided with manuals on how to deal with customers. Rather, with the goal of providing customers with the "Wow" experience, employees are left to their own devices to provide customer satisfaction. In fact, there have been cases where an employee provided a customer advice for six hours and another who found a product that the customer wanted from a competing shopping site. The important fact here is that through such a policy, Zappos has succeeded in continuously increasing its sales and is inundated with thank you messages from its customers.

The final obstacle is miscommunication. When the outcome of an assignment is not what was expected, it is easy for leaders to conclude that it would have been better if they had done it themselves. In order to preemptively avoid such situations, leaders should frequently communicate with their employees with open-ended questions such as "how is the project going?" or "is there anything I can help you with?" Such questioning avoids yes/no answers and gives leaders and opportunity to receive employees' feedback and opinions, opening the gate for proactive communication.

Also, when there is a problem, it is important to be able to control one's emotions. For this, professor and motivational speaker Stephen Covey introduced the 'STC model,' which stands for "Stop" when you get emotional, "Think" of ways to collect yourself, and "Choose" how the situation is going to end and act accordingly.

Just as conductors cannot play all the musical instruments or sports coaches play all the positions on a field, corporate leaders cannot manage every unit simultaneously. But if they cultivate their employees' capabilities and empower them, they will have the foundation for sustainable success and can concentrate on the overall strategy, not minor issues.

This column originally appeared in Korea JoongAng Daily.
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