Empowerment … not for the faint hearted

By David Bingley CPCC, PCC

I was a middle manager in an International Hospitality Company when I first heard about “Empowerment” in my workplace as a norm.  From the meetings I attended in the leadup to the rollout filled me with dread.  In the sense that we as a leadership team were only paying lip service to the process and had either no intention of taking it seriously or did not have any idea as to how it would work successfully.  There was a lot of assumption and very little self-awareness as to how we operated.

In truth, I had my suspicions that we, as a whole, would fail to uphold the spirit of empowerment on day 1 but did not realize how fast we would fail or the impact it would have on teams moving forward.

It seemed to me that the spirit or essence of Empowerment was not understood, meaning we did not discuss what empowerment meant or what we should expect.  In the first hour a member of the front office team made a decision with created an issue which escalated out of proportion.  I do not recall the exact issue, but can visualize and still feel the negative energy and emotions that went spinning out of control.  This is what happened:

  1. A decision was made
  2. The decision was a poor one.
  3. A complaint was made, or it raised a red flag pretty quickly.
  4. More than one department jumped in and pointed angry and accusatory fingers.
  5. In Short this message was clear “They should have sought permission/approval from their manager before making the decision”.
  6. The GM and Senior Executives got involved.
  7. HR was consulted.
  8. Knee jerk reactions were made.
  9. Customer was overcompensated for the mistake.
  10. No one ever on that team or in any team chose to make a decision ever again.

I watched as an observer in horror and even spoke to my colleague and friend who was involved to try to get him to explore a different approach.  

Another example, which came years later I was teaching in a Private Culinary Academy when a student of mine made a decision during the lunch service.  He was on reception and reservations.  He rejected a walk-in table of 5, because the floor plan he was working to was full in terms of the larger tables and had a few smaller tables available only.  He turned the table away in front of the school principal.

The principle got angry and went into the blame game refusing to listen to the student and generally escalating a minor issue and easily fixed issue out of proportion.

  1. A decision was made
  2. The decision was a poor one.
  3. A complaint was made or it raised a red flag pretty quickly
  4. They should have sought permission/approval from their instructor before making the decision.
  5. The instructor fitted in and used this as a coaching moment and for deep learning.

The difference with the 2 cases is that the Spirit of Empowerment was honored in the second case.  It was a powerful learning moment for many people not just to those directly involved.

The Rules of Empowerment

  • The first thing we need to do with Empowerment is to honor that we are working in that space.
  • The second thing we need to do is to know that in the Empowerment space there will be some poor choices being made which may impact income, brand image, customer satisfaction etc…
  • The third thing we need to do is to accept that as the pain and learning process for all involved.

The Framework of Empowerment

  • Once we have a flash point, whenever that is in the process, we need to celebrate that we have a winner.  A winner in the sense that someone made a decision, then chose a course of action and we must honor and support that.
  • Then we need to decide if we must take over the process and with the person who made the decision take remedial action.
  • Then either ask the decision maker what they think they should do next to rectify the solution or as a mentor guide them through your thought process to rectify the issue.

In the second case, I guided the student to the outlet to look at how we can find a space and table for the guests.  It involved asking someone to move their table to open up space for the table of 5.  The student did not immediately agree, they thought that it was rude and disrespectful.  I let him know I agreed with him to a point and explained that one it was an industry practice and two if it was his own restaurant, he was turning money away when he could maximize his seating and income by explaining to the guest our situation and asking them kindly to move tables.  In return we would offer them a complimentary coffee or dessert for their trouble.  It happens in the industry.

The key here in empowerment is to stand in the shoes of the individual making the decision free of all the knowledge, perceptions and commonsense that you possess at the time of the incident and free of the same when you were at the same age of the decision maker.  The fact is you do not know what their life experiences accumulated to until that moment or what processes prompted them to make that decision.  You have to stand in their shoes neutrally and blank.

Then we celebrate the decision and support them with that, understanding them and their process.  Really listening to them so they feel “Seen, Heard, Recognized and Respected”.  

Once you have understood their process then we can ask them knowing what happened what would they do differently.  This is the PAIN process.  We need to stick to this part in order to unpack different choices, options and scenarios that are available to them.

In this case I was able to highlight that the floor plan is a tool that is not fixed but flexible as it will assist us to maximize our potentials when the unexpected happens or unknown factors come into play.

The objective is to show solidarity and support to the team by supporting individuals to make decisions and even when a poor decision is made to learn from that and continue to make decisions confidently.  Pain and process.

So as a leader you want your team members to be responsible, accountable and take ownership for their actions.  You want them to develop and grow and for that they will need your support.  Therefore, you as a leader will need to be equally as responsible, accountable and have ownership.

With the second case I was able to talk to other stakeholders in the school and asked them what they would have done if they were that student.  All without exception, did not stand neutrally in the students’ shoes, they used their own judgment and common sense.  

Empowerment is a space which takes courage, practice and commitment from the manager or leader… it will pay dividends with your team in a short space of time.  We as humans have the capacity to learn quicky.  All the team members can see that they have a framework and support structure and if it goes wrong then have the ability to learn and make better choices and decisions.  One of my favorite questions in many situations and particularly in this space is when talking about issues is this “Knowing what you know now… what would you do differently?”