Create an Empowering Environment

September 1, 1995
Em-pow-er-ment: (im-paü(-e)r-ment)

When employees "own" their jobs; when they are able to measure and influence their individual success as well as the success of their departments and their companies. Empowered employees are energetic and passionate. They want to do a better job because they feel personally rewarded for doing so.

It's hard to imagine any group of employees being less empowered than those who worked in communist enterprises behind the Iron Curtain. The communist "management" style was blatantly authoritarian: Employees simply did what they were told, no questions asked. Forget creativity and innovation. Employees were seen as bodies, not minds, and any thinking that needed to be done would be done by supervisors, thank you very much. The communist regime destroyed employee initiative, eliminated trust and created legions of workers who weren't lazy so much as they were uninspired.

This was the kind of work force New York City-based Colgate-Palmolive Corp. confronted when the company began to open manufacturing plants in Central Europe three years ago. The HR challenge? How to get the best from employees in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Romania and Poland, employees who were used to doing only what was required—no more, no less. "We wanted employees to believe in the business, to understand what needed to be done and to be willing to give us their good ideas," explains Philip Berry, the company's director of HR for Central Europe, Middle East and Africa. In short, the company wanted empowered employees. Managers knew, however, that the idea was antithetical to the workers' way of thinking. Creating a truly empowered work force would require patience and an extraordinary HR effort.

"We could have brought in strong expatriate managers to go with the grain, to continue the authoritarian management style," Berry says. Instead, the company chose to emphasize its own culture, the Colgate-Palmolive managerial style that's consistent around the world. The company encouraged employees to share their ideas about how to run the business and then rewarded them for doing so. To help them generate ideas, managers gave employees information about the business, invested in new skills training, set goals for employees and gave them ongoing feedback on how they were meeting those goals. "In short," Berry says, "we treated them like adults."

Just a few years later, the results are nothing short of amazing. Workers have blossomed—they're finding skills they didn't know they had, and the majority of the work force is operating at a capacity never before thought possible. Job satisfaction is high, most employees appear to trust management, and when you ask Berry if he thinks workers have become empowered, he answers with an emphatic "Yes." Now, if Colgate can get these kinds of results from employees used to working in autocracies, imagine what companies can achieve by empowering their U.S. work forces.

Unfortunately, this is no easy task. True empowerment doesn't provide immediate gratification. Bill Byham, president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Development Dimensions Int'l., and author of "Zapp! The Lightning of Empowerment," says the length of the learning curve is the greatest challenge to most empowerment programs. "It takes longer for employees to figure out how to make improvements on their own than it does to just tell them what to do," he says. "The cost of empowerment is in the time it takes, not in the cost of training or anything else."

It also takes time for workers to understand managers really do want more input on how to run the business. "Empowerment is a very fragile process," says Jerry Pfundtner, quality assurance manager at Stamford, Connecticut-based Xerox Corp. "It's subject to a great many influences, including changes in managers, employees, priorities and job requirements."

In addition to the patience many companies lack, a lot of so-called empowerment programs fail because HR initiates the process the wrong way. As Colgate discovered, empowerment isn't something you do to people. It's something HR must nurture and encourage by creating an empowering environment—one in which employees are given goals, information, feedback, training, and perhaps most importantly, positive reinforcement.

Work teams and information sharing are the building blocks of an empowering environment.
"Empowerment programs tend to fail when management doesn't deal with the environment that influences employee behavior," explains Byham, considered one of the country's foremost authorities on employee empowerment. The only way to capture employees' hearts and get them psychologically involved in work, he says, is by changing how they view that work.

Companies in which employees are most likely to consider themselves empowered are those that rely heavily on teams and teamwork. That's because by working in teams, employees not only find greater meaning in their work but also have more ability to influence its outcome. As a result, teams change how work is viewed, setting the stage for more important and longer-lasting changes in attitude.

"Empowerment programs won't work unless employees work in teams," agrees Russell Justice, technical associate and quality consultant for Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tennessee, a 1993 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award winner. Team members get ongoing positive feedback from each other in a way they never could working independently and relying on a single supervisor for support and direction. For this reason, HR professionals who want employees to feel empowered should start by reorganizing their work force into teams. Only then can they start making the environmental changes needed to support those teams.

"You make empowerment something employees want to do by celebrating their successes."—Aubrey Daniels, Aubrey Daniels & Associates

The first of these changes is information sharing. Give employees information about the business and demonstrate how their work fits in. One of the most important measures of job satisfaction is whether employees find meaning in their work—if they know what they're working toward and understand how their work affects other employees and the company as a whole. Surprisingly few organizations take the time to share this kind of information. HR needs to take special care that employees aren't left in the dark.

"Employees tend to resist empowerment programs when they don't understand what it is they're working toward," says Richard Harris, senior vice president of the Forum Corp., a global training company based in Boston. "Employees need strategic goals, and they need to understand the impact their work has on the achievement of those goals." This kind of information creates the buy-in necessary to generate dramatic and ongoing improvements in the business.

Take the Central European employees hired by Colgate. These people had spent their careers working in a vacuum. They had no information about organizational goals. They knew nothing about sales. They had no idea what it cost to produce products. And because they were used to working in a communist system, they had no understanding of marketing or free enterprise.

To help employees understand their new jobs, Colgate's HR managers gave them information about the company and explained what the free-enterprise system is all about. They shared sales and cost figures, they talked about their products and their competitors' products, and they described company initiatives in a way that made employees understand how their work fit into the big picture. Not accustomed to being given this kind of information, employees were skeptical at first. But as Berry says, "Everyone wants to feel they do something of value. When you demonstrate the value individuals bring to the business, people want to grow."

As employees began to understand the business, the individual and team goals that they were working toward and how their contributions fit into the company's larger business goals, they began to find greater meaning in their work, and productivity improved.

Information sharing is also key to employee empowerment at Eastman Chemical, where every employee works on teams that are challenged to find ways to improve the business. "Teams are regarded as the board of directors for their particular business," Justice says, "because no one knows how to improve the work better than the people who do it every day."

Like any board of directors, however, those team members need information to make decisions about how to improve the work. For this reason, Eastman Chemical, like Colgate, shares information about sales results, quality improvements, cost reductions and anything else employees need to understand their jobs better.

The company also spends a lot of time talking about goals and explaining why those goals are important to customers, to the company and to individual employees. Each goal is accompanied by a timeline and a description of what management will do to help employees achieve it.

This information helps employees focus on things that need improving, Justice says. It helps team members become like-minded. "Without focus, employees are like an orchestra that's warming up," he adds. "Individually, they may be very talented, but if they don't know what they're working toward, no common sound will emerge."

Provide the training and resources needed to do a good job.
Once employees understand what needs to be done to improve the company, they must have the skills and resources necessary to be able to accomplish those improvements. Nothing is more demotivating or disempowering than being stopped in your tracks because you either don't know how to proceed or lack the tools necessary to do a good job.

"Having the skills and ability to do a job well is one of the most important dimensions of empowerment," says Justice. That's why at Eastman Chemical—as with most other companies with successful empowerment initiatives—training is an important part of the process. There, team members attend training together, bringing an actual problem that needs solving to the training program. Legal teams, for example, are working on ways to cut down on legal jargon so it's easier to do business with Eastman. Sales teams are working on how to better ensure sales orders are completed with the correct information. "This way, employees acquire skills they need when they need them," Justice says.

Pfundtner agrees that employee development is key to an empowered work force. If you want to make significant changes in the business, you have to make significant changes in how you do things, he says. And you do this by showing employees how to do things differently through continuous education and skills upgrading.

Team training and interpersonal-skills training are especially important because empowered employees rarely, if ever, work independently. "Empowerment is about interdependence," says Byham. "A good idea doesn't mean anything unless other people can help you put it to work."

After employee training, the second half of empowerment training is aimed at helping management learn to empower others. This kind of training, by necessity, is less about management and more about coaching and creating an environ ment open to new ways of doing things. For employees to truly be empowered, managers have to give up control—and that's not easy. They have to learn less hands-on, more supportive management styles. Managers also have to learn how to nurture and reward good ideas, and know what kind of challenges to give employees.

"A lot of managers make the mistake of giving employees too great a challenge in the early days of empowerment," Byham says. Then, the employees fail and are unwilling to take the initiative again. As Aubrey Daniels, author of "Bringing Out the Best in People," writes in his book: "The best way to empower team members is gradually and systematically. You can't say to people, 'Okay, after all these years of reporting to your boss, getting everything approved and working within limited boundaries, you are now free! You're on your own! Start taking responsibility and making decisions!' Responsibilities for self-management and decision making should be turned over to employees on an as-ready basis, and the responsibilities given initially should be limited in scope."

Managers must also accept the fact that not all employees want to be empowered. Many workers just work better in jobs that are clearly defined and closely supervised. Even at Colgate's Central European plants, a full 25% of the employees have resisted the notion of empowerment, Berry says, adding that those employees tend to be older and more resistant to the idea of change in general.

"Usually employees uncomfortable with empowerment leave the company on their own," adds Justice. "The peer pressure to get involved is so great that either they do or they opt out."

Once both employees and managers have received proper training, the next step is to give employees control of the resources needed to make improvements. A team formed at Allied Systems Inc., based in Decatur, Georgia, for example, was empowered to find ways of reducing on-the-job injuries by 50% within one year. Managers gave the team a goal and information about the current injury rate (team building and information sharing being the important first steps mentioned earlier). Then, the group was given a budget and told to find ways to improve safety awareness.

"The employees were in total control of the budget and in determining how to spend it," says Jim Gage, terminal manager at the St. Louis facility where the team was formed. Armed with the necessary information, a clear sense of direction and resources to work with, the team reduced injuries by 71%, well above the stated goal.

Provide measurements, feedback and reinforcement.
Once employees have devised ways to improve their jobs, departments or the business as a whole, managers must allow employees to measure those improvements. If, for example, employees find a method they believe will reduce scrap in the manufacturing process, they need to know on a regular basis if scrap is indeed being reduced. After all, why would they continue to seek improvements when they don't know whether their previous suggestions are working?

"The secret of empowerment is [having] measurements that people can control," Byham says. Ideally, employees should come up with their own goals and ways of measuring achievement of those goals. But this may not always be possible, as information is often collected and managed by other departments within a company. Therefore, managers must find ways to gather and disseminate measurements and provide feedback on them.

At Eastman Chemical, for example, managers are in the process of devising a "sale-o-meter," in which sales figures will be transferred immediately from the computers on which orders were placed to an electronic display in the employee lunchroom. Employees will eventually see a running tally of sales made each day, with the top 10 sales highlighted. Knowing daily sales figures gives employees a shared sense of accomplishment and pride in the company, Justice says. "The whole idea is to make performance visible."

Employee empowerment requires ongoing positive reinforcement.
Just as important as providing progress measurement is providing continued, positive reinforcement, says Daniels, president of management-consulting firm Aubrey Daniels and Associates in Tucker, Georgia. "You have to make empowerment something employees want to do, and you do this by celebrating their successes," he explains. "Change requires many reinforcers for the new behaviors before new habits can be established."

Motivational experts suggest managers give positive reinforcement often and immediately after a job well done. Employees want to be recognized individually for good work from their supervisors. They also want to be publicly recognized because it tells them their achievements are worth everyone's attention. But groups also want to celebrate their successes.

At Eastman Chemical, managers create very elaborate plans for positively reinforcing group achievement. The company doesn't spend a lot of money on these celebrations. Instead, it spends a lot of creativity. For example, a group of mechanics who met an important goal were treated to a car wash conducted by top managers. Employees whose ideas generated $1 million in cost savings were invited to come view $1 million in $20 bills. "We went to the bank, got a million dollars and invited employees to come up and see what their savings looked like," Justice says.

Another expression that's often used to refer to the positive reinforcement process is "performance management," and companies whose employees demonstrate great initiative are those in which performance management is an established part of doing business. At The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, California, performance management has been implemented on a companywide basis for more than two years. The goal? To encourage employees to continually improve customer service, then reward them for doing so.

An important part of the company's performance-management process is its system of positive reinforcement through celebrations. Managers solicited ideas for successful celebrations from everyone in the company and then developed a "cookbook" that includes recipes for a variety of celebrations. Included were "fast-food recipes," which are quick and economical celebrations used in the early stages of employee empowerment and goal setting; "main meals" designed for observing a group or departmental subgoal; and "gourmet meals" which are elaborate celebrations for achievement of a major goal.

The company's emphasis on positive reinforcement has created dramatic improvements in the business—improvements that resulted from employees taking the initiative to get things done. After suffering through a departmental downsizing that affected 100 employees, for instance, the circulation department still managed to improve productivity and customer service. A program to reduce newsprint waste ended up also reducing errors, saving film, saving printing plates and improving print quality and department productivity. "The results have been nothing short of phenomenal," says John Schueler, president and chief operating officer.

By giving employees information, resources and training, and by following up with measurements and reinforcement, HR can create an empowered environment. But remember, empowering employees is a continual process—like quality improvement, it's a race without a finish line. Those companies that take the first step by creating an environment conducive to empowerment will be at the head of the pack.

Personnel Journal, September 1995, Vol. 74, No. 9, pp. 28-36.