First Line Manager: Empowering Employees

Our company President rose, his first statement, “You are empowered. I expect you to make decisions for our company.” Sounded good since this is the flavor of the month in corporate slogans: empowerment. He made no further explanation; just moved on to other subjects. He repeated this statement every time he spoke to employees.So, what is an empowered employee?

First line supervisors want employees to make decisions. Decisions that are good for the customer and the company. This decision-making process takes time and training. Not all decisions are good. First line supervisors are aware of the strengths and limits of an employee’s ability to make good decisions. They must train employees what a good decision is for the customer and the company.

Unless you define the decision making process your employees are not empowered. They may feel like a horse whose rider is whipping him without the reins in his hands. This horse has two choices, to go around in circles; or, to bolt in any direction he wishes. If the rider has the reins in his hands he gives a direction to the horse. This powerful animal is sure in the direction he takes. You gave him direction.

Non-supervisory employees present a different issue. These employees, by law, can only make decisions within clearly defined procedures and guidelines. First line management must define these procedures and guidelines. The employee training program must have clear statements on making decisions. This training should have target decision level descriptions. These descriptions let the employee know when his ability to make good decisions increases. For example, a senior level employee can use the procedures and guidelines to find a solution for most unique and difficult customer situations. Employees without this information cannot be empowered to make good decisions; or, to gage their progress.

First line managers will reverse some decisions their employees make. This can stymie an employee. Now what am I to do, I don’t understand why you reversed my decision. I have employees state, “I will just not make any more decisions if you are going to overrule me.” What is a supervisor to do? First line supervisors know how employees feel; since they probably get over ruled more than most employees.

Here is my comment to an employee. If a customer asks to see me because he did not like your decision. I will check with you on your decision. Then, let your decision go. I will base my decision on what you told the customer and my experience. If my decision is different from yours, I will come and explain why. If you did make a wrong decision I will explain that to you. But by all means do not take it personally. I let the employee know my goal is to teach them to make good decisions for the company and the customer.

This story sounds contrary to my comment about not taking decision overrides personally. Anyway here goes. As a business office manager I work with customers on bill payment issues. One customer came into the office and wanted me to make arrangements on his bill. I worked with him for several months. Now I said, you must pay the bill. The customer appeals to my District Manager. I get a phone call from my district manager with the instruction to work with him. I explained how many times I worked with this customer. He said to work with him again. Just do it; no explanation. I place a note on this customer’s account to phone the district manager about any future arrangements. A few months go by, I receive a call from the district manager. Jim, I am going to let you handle this customer. I agreed. Then he said will you take the note off the account. If he wanted my job, I let him have it. This is what your employees will do if you do not handle overrides of their decisions effectively.

Here is the point; first line managers need empowered employees. Back them up on their decisions. If you cannot let them know why. Most decisions have multiple answers. Teach employees, to let you handle decisions outside of a set of parameters you define in the procedures and guidelines of their jobs. You will by this process create empowered employees. Employees will feel comfortable making effective decisions. They know you will most times support their decisions. If not, you will treat the decision as a teaching moment not as a got-you moment.

Empowered employees are the natural outcome of intensive training. An empowered employee is the result of a confident and competent employee; not a mandate from an executive.

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About OJ

I am a retired first line manager with over 40 years of experience. In operations management, accounting management, and central operations management. It is my wish to convey some of the experiences I have learned form over the years in the articles on my site.
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