An executive friend in an organization and industry riven by digital disruption and declining margins confided over lunch how dramatically her new CEO had impressed everyone at a recent executive offsite. “She listened carefully to people’s complaints about all the processes and obstructions they felt got in the way of their doing their jobs,” said my friend, “and instead of pushing back or challenging them, she agreed and said she’d do everything she could to get those obstacles removed….People were amazed and energized.”
Responsive CEOs are wonderful. But, knowing the industry well, her declared commitment suggested more than an understandable desire to eradicate unhappy bureaucratic burdens. She likely wanted to see how well her top people understood their own effectiveness. The unspoken deal: eliminating organizational impediments would radically improve their business results.
This wasn’t primarily about empowerment; the CEO was effectively removing executive excuses for underperformance and inefficiency. Essentially, I observed, this was an investment in making people more accountable. My friend, who is responsible for a large part of the business, didn’t disagree. She knew she was on the hook.
While this approach is hardly manipulative or Machiavellian, it seems fair to say organizations frequently misunderstand and misapply employee engagement and empowerment. Engagement and empowerment represent admirable and desirable values but they are fundamentally means, not ends. The business purpose of greater employee engagement and empowerment is not happier employees but people who are more productive, innovative, and accountable for the choices they make. Empowerment is an investment in accountability. Successful organizations expect healthy returns on their investments.
At one global B2B sales organization, for example, sales people perennially complained about the burden of filing detailed reports on sales calls to accounts and prospects alike. Even though the information and intelligence these reports provided were useful to both sales teams and the enterprise alike, the clear sales majority argued that the time and effort the reports took cut into the time and effort they spent on selling. We could sell more if you made us report less, said the sales force. Free us up to sell. Make reporting less burdensome. Empower us.
So, both as test and demonstration that it took its sales team seriously, the company changed reporting requirements for a few geographies and product lines. The result? Sales increased for a handful of high performers; held steady for the overwhelming majority; and measurably dropped for about 20% of the participants.
Empowerment, in other words, boosted sales for only a sliver of the force; it had no positive productivity benefit for the rest. Indeed, reviews of the initiative suggested that marketing and customer service were hurt by the lack of detailed sales reports for those accounts. Ironically and in fact, average salespeople proved more dependent on past reports for their effectiveness than they had acknowledged.
The exercise ultimately had a massive impact on the sales organization. While the firm eventually streamlined sales reporting requirements, the experience revealed the sales force had hired too many underperformers; too many salespeople couldn’t accurately assess prospect potential and couldn’t figure out where they were in the sales cycle without more detailed support. The bottom line? Freeing up top salespeople was a terrific investment; empowering average and/or typical salespeople delivered poor ROI.
Whether in sales, customer service, or software, empowered employees who consistently underperform are probably in the wrong job. Indeed, empowerment may be the surest way of determining whether rigorous compliance or greater initiative delivers the greatest value-added component of a job. Empowerment is the antithesis of compliance; its purpose is increasing choices rather than limiting them.
But where compliance holds employees accountable for following the rules, empowerment makes them accountable for their choices. The more empowered employees are, the more accountable they become. In other words, be careful of what you wish for because you are sure to get it.
–Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business