I remember feeling really frustrated in one of my first jobs because my peers and I weren’t trusted to make simple decisions. In the coffee room the conversation was always the same: how the manager didn’t know best on all occasions and how some of her ‘money saving’ techniques actually caused more wastage. I was 14 at the time, and ultimately left because of frustration with the manager in question.
As I progressed and went through management training myself I often felt the same frustration. One particular appraisal with a manager was very complimentary, but ended with a comment that I needed to be less trusting of people to do the right thing for the company. The suggestion was that the only way to have complete assurance was to keep a “tight rein on all team members, allowing no room for individual decision-making”. My experience has shown this to be far from the case.
While attitudes to empowerment have changed over the past 30 years, many good managers still fear letting go and devolving decision-making. Sometimes this is understandable; some business decisions are unique and therefore unable to be structured in an empowerment framework. But these situations are rare and over the past 15 years I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked “why can’t the first point of contact make this decision?” or “how can we stop these types of decisions being escalated?”
An example I often use to encourage empowerment begins with a conversation I had with a manager, in which she told me that each month her small department received more than 2,000 internal calls. Every time a team member in another area of the business wanted to offer a certain price to a customer it had to be approved by her department. In other words, around 100 times a day a middle man was put between the team member and the sale they were discussing.
The assumption was that if the employees on the phones had the power to negotiate with the customer they wouldn’t think in the customer’s or the business’s best interests. It seemed out of the question to give the frontline team the methodology and trust to complete the deal.
Within a week a simple framework was agreed and given to the frontline team. Within a month a review showed that customers were happier, as they were being dealt with immediately and by the same person. The frontline team were found to be just as commercially- and customer-focused as the ‘back office’ team. And what’s more, we saved time that could be invested in new customer initiatives.
It may be tough to break with tradition but, when properly executed, employee empowerment adds real value. I believe in making sure everyone knows the role they’re delivering, so teams understand the problems they face and are responsible for identifying the outcome. And while hierarchy is present in all companies, I prefer to deal directly with the first point of contact on a project. I then get to hear ideas and voices I wouldn’t otherwise.
This isn’t to say you can completely forget the risk factor. I have a great team that focuses entirely on business risk. It’s up to you to decide where risk and empowerment intersect. But in doing so you’ll discover how much your team can surprise and inspire you. It could be the best gamble you ever take.
Nikki Flanders is COO at Opus Energy