Give Your Employees a Knife

The meal was superb at the Outback Steakhouse in Conyers, GA. And, my wife and I were looking forward to a romantic nightcap in our La Quinta Inn hotel room within walking distance of the restaurant. A vodka tonic is not the same without a slice of lemon so I had asked the Outback bartender for a whole lemon which she gladly provided. We walked into the La Quinta lobby in desperate need of a knife to cut our lemon for garnishing my wife’s favorite adult beverage!

“Tracie,” I announced to the front desk service rep, “can we please borrow a knife to cut this lemon for a special nightcap?” Without hesitation, she responded, “I will be delighted to help you with that.” We were expecting a plastic knife or a small paring knife. After all, this was a limited service hotel, not a fancy full-service Ritz-Carlton. A moment later, she emerged from the kitchen with a big smile, a carving knife, and a cutting board. We were stunned! It was empowerment at its finest!

As we walked down the hallway toward our room, I said to my wife, “Now, that is taking care of your guest!” My wife quickly chided, “She was also taking care of this hotel. She probably figured you’d try to cut that lemon on their wooden desk!!”

Empowerment does not mean unlimited license. It means responsible freedom -- balancing great service with great stewardship. Tracie was going the extra mile for her guests; she was also taking care of her hotel. If we dissected this act of empowered action for lessons learned, what might we discover was fueling Tracie’s superb hosting?

The Power of “Giving the Knife”

One of the features of grandparenthood is the huge repository of stories just waiting to be told to anyone who will listen. So, be patient with a short granddaddy story.

My youngest granddaughter, Cassie, spends a week with us in the summer while her two older sisters are off at camp. A couple of years ago we started inviting Cassie to prepare pancakes every morning…completely from scratch and with limited supervision! A side feature was her narrating her chef-work as it was videotaped for the “Cassie’s Cooking Show” to be viewed later on our television. But, we noticed that what came with the “you’re in charge” cooking was the ease with which it was generalized to doing her chores without being asked.

When her whole family visited us one weekend, she decided to make cookies—a process she had practiced during our summer weeks. When it came time to cut the cookie dough to be placed in the baking pan, her mother got a shocked look as I confidently handed her seven-year old daughter a sharp knife. Sensing her mother’s discomfort, she said, “Mom, I got this!  I know how to be super careful with a knife” as she carefully cut each cookie. The sound of confidence was more than obvious. I know what you’re thinking...granddaddies can be dangerous people!!

The message is the same for employees with empowerment. Trust them as mature adults and it will be generalized to all their other assignments. If you lead as a confident partner and not as a doting parent you’ll receive motivation, not movement; commitment, not compliance. Assume the best in your employees and, like Cassie, your employees will be a shining example of your assumption.

Being a partner does not mean acting as a “servant.” The word servant (with a hat tip to Robert Greenleaf!) implies deference while partner implies mutuality. Servant connotes power over; partner connotes power with. Servant denotes compliance, partner denotes community. Servants acquiesce; partners assert. Finally, servants show patronage; but partners show passion.

Competitive advantage today requires cutting edge innovation, distinctive service, and lightning fast responsiveness. That advantage requires a work force committed to success and enthusiastic about excellence. The "partner-leader" focuses less on sovereignty and more on support; they coach not control. How do partner-leaders carry out their “in charge” positions without power and authority being the medium of exchange?

Tools for “Giving the Knife”

Empowerment is the process of releasing employee power. Since personal power is already present in every employee, empowerment is not a gift given by the leader. When leaders ask, “How do I empower my employees?” they are viewing it as a gift. The job of the leader is to release power. Think of your leadership job as a liberator…removing obstacles that keep employees from using their personal power. What are the barriers to responsible freedom in your operation? Below are four empowerment obstacles often the culprits to power release.

1) Purpose: Focus on What Matters Most

Today’s employees work harder and smarter when they feel a part of an important mission. The obstacle “no purpose” means employees fail to focus on what matters most. However, armed with a clear purpose they make responsible decisions on behalf of both the organization and the customer. When asked, “What are you doing,” the apathetic bricklayer stated the obvious ... "laying bricks.” But, the bricklayer with purpose answered, “I’m building a great cathedral.” Purpose provides employees a focus on the cathedral building mission, not just the brick-laying tasks.

Purpose is the “Oh, so that’s why I’m here” explanation that energizes and inspires. For Tracie to act with extraordinary zeal, for example, it was obvious she knew her purpose was to be “here for the guest” not just “check the guest into the hotel.” Dan Pink in his best-selling book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us cited “purpose” as a top catalyst for commitment and motivation, not the carrot-stick approach of yesteryear.

2) Protection: Demonstrate Obvious Trust

Empowerment begins with error! The obstacle “no protection” means employees feel there is no net of support to catch them should they fall from the high wire of responsible risk-taking. If errors are met with rebuke or punishment, it sends a very different message than if leaders view errors as opportunities for learning and preparation. Without risks, there is no learning, no creativity, and consequently, no motivation. With risks, there are occasional honest mistakes that lead to preparedness.

Remember: it is much easier to gently rein in an overzealous, go-two-extra-miles employee than it is to find one with the enthusiastic attitude in the first place. Even if it makes you tense up like my daughter-in-law and cross your fingers to think of employees “out there on the high wire,” your job as leader is to support employees’ courage so they go out and try again.

3) Permission: Ensure Relevant Boundaries

Employees need guidelines, not unlimited license. The obstacle of “no permission” can imply “just go do whatever you think is best.” Such a boundaryless approach is leader abdication, not empowerment. But guidelines also need elbow room to enable the person to adapt to the situation and to the customer. Customers don’t want robotic uniformity in a service experience. They do want consistency. But they also want to be personally treated as unique. This combination requires frontline flexibility within relevant boundaries.

Keep in mind that shifting an employee from a history of tight rein to greater freedom requires patience. It also requires continual encouragement and non-stop support. It is likely they will not believe you the first time you say, “Yes, you can!” As Ken Blanchard is fond of saying, it takes catching employees doing things right. It also requires being crystal clear on expectations and providing instructive coaching when well-intentioned employees take actions outside the boundaries of responsible operation.

4) Proficiency: Help Employee Feel Prepared

“Knowledge is power,” said philosopher Francis Bacon. The “no proficiency” obstacle robs employees of the capacity to find resourceful solutions. Proficiency is the mark of a wise person prepared and empowered to go beyond the familiar and the ordinary. Tracie probably did not have a class on “loaning a knife and carving board.” But, her preparation enabled her to find a wise solution that thrilled her guest and protected her property. Training your employees, not once but constantly, provides more than competence, it helps ensure service wisdom. It enables confident “I got this” certainty.

Leaders as mentors know that mentoring is not about smart comments or clever quips but rather lessons laced with never-ending compassion, crystal-clear communication, and a sincere joy of watching employees acquire mastery. Whether a thirty-second suggestion or a thirty-minute lesson, great mentoring is done with humility, curiosity and patience.

As long as organizations have people at different levels, empowerment will be a challenge and a never-ending journey. The wise leader recognizes the enormous power that can be released and harnessed when obstacles to responsible freedom are eliminated and employees are encouraged to think more like owners. Morale climbs, burnout is reduced, leaders feel responsibility shared, and profits soar as customers rave about the organization full of value, joy...and power!

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