Every management book will tell you that you need to empower your associates. In many ways, it does make perfect sense; the more your associates can do the right thing for customers on their own, everyone wins.
- Customers get their issue resolved or the product they want with limited hassle.
- Your associates are more fulfilled and their overall engagement and morale increases.
- And you, as the leader, get the opportunity cost of focusing on more strategic priorities
But you are doing it wrong (maybe).
Somehow the word empowerment turned into something that you can give to another person, like a magical gift. Or I can bop you on head, like a holy man, and now you are empowered (dusts hands off in a proud manner of achievement). Or you have been hypnotized by my mystical words of leadership.
Empowerment is like energy, I cannot physically give you mine; it is already resides in your associates. If you believe you can actually pass it along, you may be essentially passing over nothing. However, if we believe empowerment is something that I (your manager) can help unlock within you (associate), we can take the appropriate steps unleash it. So instead of talking about empowerment, I talk with my reports about how I can help them exercise their responsible freedom, and how they can help their reports exercise theirs.
I discovered the phrase in a book by Chip R. Bell & Ron Zemke called Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service. It’s a great book for the Customer Service Leader who looking for direction that spans both strategic and tactical, combined with real life stories. Exercising Responsible Freedom is simply knowing the right thing to do, understanding the risk, recognizing your proverbial guardrails, having solid rationale, and most importantly doing something. Sounds a lot like empowerment, but with some real power.
How do you do it?
- R-E-S-P-E-C-T:Have the respect for your associates to treat them like adults. Far too often, I encounter people leaders who act more like parents than business leaders. Your associates typically have mortgages, rents, insurance, bills, children, and a whole host of other responsibilities, they can handle more than you think. If they can’t, you probably need to reassess their future and the time you invest in them.
- Paint the Vision: You cannot expect people to know and do the right thing if they do not know what direction you are going. Describe to your associates what the realistic future looks like, and have conversations (two way) about what it means to them.
- Provide the Flexible Guardrails:Talk about what would be going too far, and talk about what is too safe. Use examples of what is in scope and what should remain out of scope. In regulated industries, providing this detailed information is critical for wary associates.
- Discuss Possible Outcomes:Have a discussion about if something did go wrong. Develop operating agreements that provide a safe zone for both you and the associate to review lessons learned. I find myself often saying to people, if you had a good rationale for actions, you will never been in trouble. But if I asked “why”, and their answer is “I don’t know” or “I just did it”, we will need to talk more. And don’t forget to talk about the incredible things that can happen if they take the appropriate leap.
- Let them know you TRUST them:Just overtly saying to associates, “I trust you to ….” is amazingly powerful confidence builder. It reaches them on both a professional and personal level. See prior post on Trust for more info.
It is evident that service and relationship building are key differentiators between similar businesses. Customer’s expectations are pacing with the speed of technology and process innovation. If you provide scripted and/or automated responses to customers, they will repay you with the equal amount of passion. If your social support team is tweeting right out of the traditional public relations handbook, you will most likely anger or disenfranchise your customers. Same goes for customer service representatives who must use the caller’s full name 3 times in a call.
We need to hire, develop and foster our associates (and our associates’ associates) to think critically, do what they believe is the right thing for the customer, and not feel they have done something wrong by erring on the side of the customer. When they exercise their responsible freedom, they engage customers on a human level, they build strong relationships, and they have the true opportunity to “WOW” a customer.
Image Credit: http://www.simpsonsworld.com