In Customer Experience the power to get things done is fundamental for the employee to have a chance to deliver something aligned with the Customers’ expectations. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing what to do and not being able to execute because of lack of power, or slow approval or lagging processes. Customer Experience requires people to dare. It demands that our people be able to see and act beyond the confines of the processes.
For people to be able to dare, they need the self-confidence that they have the power to try. They need to feel, deep inside, that they are super-heroes and that they truly can.
Empowerment has 2 sources:
1) One is internal, driven by the self-confidence, that is supported by the self-esteem and boosted by the knowledge about the stuff one needs to manage.
2) The other one is external, provided in the form of authority, recognition or simply freedom to act.
When we explain it this way, it looks simple, but it is not. There is an interaction between the leader and the employee, which is a very complex dynamic, that can make the empowerment a dream or a nightmare.
To understand the dynamics on this topic we need to discuss 4 main issues, Upwards Delegation, Hierarchy, Fear Free Environment and the Role of the Servant Leader.
Upwards Delegation is a problem that affects many managers and organizations.
But who are the people that delegate upwards? There are 3 main types of people that delegate, consciously or not, upwards, based on their beliefs and behaviors.
1) Those who do not want to be the protagonist:
a. Are insecure and believe more on the boss’ competence than their own;
b. Have no drive either because they are lazy, or are in their comfort zone or even do not have leadership skills;
c. Have no ambition, or do not like the exposure;
d. Have no commitment to the company, to the leader or to the role;
e. Have no ownership, either because the company does not foster this behavior or because don’t want the responsibility.
2) Those who don’t think they can run with the problem:
a. Don’t have the required knowledge;
b. Don’t believe they have the power to get things done;
c. Don’t believe they have the tools to get things done.
3) Those who don’t think they should run with the problem:
a. Simply fear. They are afraid of making a high visibility mistake, or fear the boss’ ego, or the context penalizes the ones who try;
b. They are micro-managed by the boss;
c. Boss likes to be in charge and take the bull by the horn;
d. Don’t like conflict or confrontation;
e. Believe more on the Hierarchy than on their Mission.
Hierarchy is a highly debated subject these days, with passionate positions for and against it, as it can give or take empowerment depending on its use.
In my view there are in fact a lot of good and bad uses of the Hierarchy that can easily justify both positions. Below are a few scenarios where Hierarchy can be good or bad.
Hierarchy is not bad if:
1) The team sees it as something more horizontal than vertical;
2) It defines the flow of info and communication;
3) It makes very clear the accountability limits;
4) It defines the roles and responsibilities within a business;
5) It facilitates the governance and defines the levels of approval in a business;
6) It defines the flow of guidance and reporting;
7) It facilitates the team dynamics and management, particularly from an HR perspective (training, development, evaluation salaries, benefits);
8) It helps to define the strategic and operational targets;
9) It helps to recognize achievements.
Hierarchy is not good if:
1) It defines who gives the orders;
2) It defines who has the power to penalize;
3) It is a pure exercise of power;
4) It defines who does not need to follow the rules;
5) It separates the competent people from the rest;
6) It defines who owns the truth;
7) It defines who is better and who is worse;
8) It is seen as something vertical that puts the top in the position of gods and the ones on the bottom as sinners.
This is all to say that Hierarchy can significantly hinder the contribution of employees, particularly when used to avoid the ownership of the problems, where only the top can handle complex or sensitive issues, which precludes the team members from growing and learning, which ultimately can easily be translated into bad Customer Experience.
The Hierarchy can instill a sense of fear on the team members if used the wrong way. It is very important for the team members to deliver their best in terms of contribution and particularly in terms of drive and initiative to solve the Customer problem on the spot, without having to get approvals and ask for guidance from the top, they need to have a Fear Free Environment.
An environment that their initiative and drive are rewarded and not punished. It must be a place where it will be preferred that they excuse themselves later, than asking permission in advance. A place with encouragement, where agility is the name of the game. For that to be present, the team members have to understand very well what are the limits to their actions, like at Ritz Carlton, where the staff has a certain amount they can spend to make a Customer happy, without asking for approvals. In the presence of fear the typical human responses are, freezing, running or fighting. While trying to deliver great experiences to Customers, if your team members feel the fear of taking action, they will either freeze (tell the Customer there is nothing they can do), or run (avoid the Customer and try to ignore the problem) or fight (take the ownership and run with the solution of the problem). Guess which of those behaviors is more frequent? It is easier to ignore or send Customers away than fighting for them. The fear will most likely bring your team’s ability to deliver Great Customer Experiences down to zero.
Servant Leadership is frequently regarded as the same of Leadership. It is not. Servant Leadership is a sophistication of the concept of a Leadership. It is the leadership of a person who understands that his/her role changes between leading and supporting depending on the situation. The Servant Leader is someone that doesn’t care about being the supporting actor instead of the protagonist of the action. Is a leader that is particularly good at fostering ownership on his/her team, allowing them run with the solution of complex and sensitive issues, based on their knowledge and preparedness, which he/she makes sure the team is developed to have.
A simplistic comparison between Servant Leaders and Bosses looks like this:
1) Provides Guidance;
2) Helps the team to achieve great results;
3) Allows the team members to be protagonists;
4) Welcomes suggestions, feedbacks and inputs;
5) Is constantly learning;
6) Supports the team while allowing them to lead;
7) Fosters ownership;
8) Recognizes that his/her role changes according to the circumstances (leading/ supporting).
1) Gives orders
2) Achieves results despite of the team;
3) Cannot be a supporting actor;
4) Can only give feedbacks and inputs;
5) Is constantly telling people what to do and frequently how to do;
6) Takes over during crisis;
7) Fosters Obedience instead of ownership;
8) His/her role never changes – driving and executing, taking over when needed.
Being a Servant Leader, however, is not easy. This profile of leadership does not work if the team below this leader is not prepared. A leader cannot serve people that are not comfortable leading. If the person in charge of the solution of an issue is not comfortable leading the process and other people, if the servant leader is serving that person, there will be no leadership at all. The team has to be developed to take the lead and go with it, asking the contribution or support of the servant leader when needed, but never delegating upwards.
While the servant leader is working to solve the problem that goes beyond the capabilities of the person in charge, he does not take the lead. The leadership remains the same and the boss in this case is the person in charge. The servant leader is serving, lending his/her capabilities, his/her power, his/her influence to get the job done, for which the original leader is still in charge and is still accountable.
As an example, if you have an electrical problem at your place and you call a certified electrician to come fix it, the service provider has more competence than you, has more power to get the problem fixed, but he/she does not become the owner of your house because of that. You call someone better than you in some respect, but that person comes, does the job and leaves, but you are still in charge. The same shall happen in your business. When the servant leader comes to help, he/she does not become the new leader, he/she does not take over. He/she is only helping the job to be done.
Serving is a demonstration of trust, courage, recognition of the competence of whom the servant leader is serving.
In summary, when a boss takes from his/her team the ability to run with the solution of a problem, the Customer will likely experience delays, multiple points of contact and will never trust that this leader’s team will be able to fix the problem. Ultimately, empowering the team will translate into faster and more effective solutions. The Customer gains in the experience, the team members gain in self-satisfaction, pride, self-esteem and growth and the leader gains as well by reducing the overload, improving the overall team performance and delivering a Great Customer Experience.
Empowerment is in fact a win-win-win proposition.