At first glance, the radical corporate cultures that frequently make the headlines appear progressive, perhaps even revolutionary. But don’t be fooled. Bean bags, undefined workdays and unlimited leave policies don’t drive business success – quite the opposite. They only become possible when a business experiences an extraordinary upsurge, reflecting a ‘philosophy of success’ created after success has already been achieved.
Yet, giving your team more freedom makes a lot of sense. Those who work at the ‘coal face’ have the best understanding of your customers and tapping into this knowledge can yield returns akin to gold mining.
A number of businesses gained renown for capitalising on this vital force. However, when they started to wobble and ended up getting severely bruised, or even went under, the media stayed silent. I guess it didn’t fit into the empowerment-leads-to-success paradigm.
Why do such attempts to free the team to make their own decisions usually lead to only temporary gains? Consider the following.
A doctor could be much more efficient and see twice as many patients if he decided to stop making clinical notes. After all, on the surface they look like mere bureaucracy. But problems would start emerging in subsequent patient visits. The lack of records could even mean the difference between life and death in some instances, like tracking the size of a mole that may be malignant.
Then imagine a nurse ignoring your doctor’s prescription and injecting you with medication of her own choosing because you asked her to, or because she decided that she was better positioned to handle your pain management.
And what about a pilot taking off without checking the engines, acting convinced that passengers value on-time arrival more than him following bureaucratic checklists?
Retailers too could boost their business efficiency and let store staff go home early rather than ‘wasting’ time checking till balances. Inventory received into the warehouse could be put into the first available bin slot without wasting time to record this. Putaway efficiency would go up, but the resulting pain would be felt very quickly in both stores and in the warehouse.
Though somewhat extreme, these examples explain why empowerment must not mean the absence of structure. Managerial responsibility must be respected, as management ultimately have commercial and legal responsibility for the business and its long-term fortunes.
Does this imply that businesses cannot embrace staff empowerment? Or does it mean compromise, trying to resolve a question of balance? Do we need to figure out how much operational discipline must be traded for empowerment, without undermining the business?
Trading one for the other would be a mistake. Empowerment and discipline must not be viewed as conflicting concepts, but rather as complementary. To benefit from empowered staff without losing control over the key processes in the business, management must learn how to combine both.
The following quadrant diagram illustrates how empowerment and organisational discipline intersect.
Once we separate these two variables and realise that ideas and knowledge generated by empowered staff and organisational discipline belong to two different yet complementary realms, we can tap the gold without putting the business at risk.
Operational discipline, compliance, or whatever you want to call it, no longer needs to be looked at as some kind of oppression but rather as an agreed set of rules required to allow people to function well together – within a workplace and within society.
Quality teams operate in the top-right quadrant. They follow a principle that everyone within a business should be able to make a suggestion and have it evaluated, but the decision of whether to act on the idea must rest with the people who have direct responsibility for business outcomes.
What do you need to do to adopt this type of approach in your business?
This protocol creates a continuous loop that eliminates the need to find balance between empowerment and discipline.
A note of caution: In my experience, people can get upset when a manager asks them for their view and then acts differently. Staff should be made acutely aware that during the decision making process, the manager must look at the issue from various perspectives and consider different facts and potential consequences. Being accountable for the decision, the manager needs to have the right to say no.
Businesses that let their teams operate without rules will eventually fall victim to an unstable system. Conversely, if you leave your team out of the business improvement process and adopt an autocratic management style, you will lose touch with your market and eventually make serious errors of judgement.
To sum it up: you don’t have to suffer from the dilemma of whether to choose between empowerment and discipline. They need to be used symbiotically to create a stable yet inclusive foundation for business success.