Timeless Advice on Employee Empowerment: How to Walk the Tightrope

Posted by HRDQ on 05/03/2018 to Leadership

Walking Empowerment Tightrope

The Importance of Employee Empowerment

Walking the Empowerment Tightrope is deemed a “classic” in a new review. This book on employee empowerment was a best seller for HRDQ when it was published, and now it deserves a fresh look as a “timeless” piece, according to Edward Hampton, CEO of Performance Perspectives LLC.

"[This is an] awesome book. Very lucid. Illuminates complex ideas in very relatable terms and expression. One of the few books that recognizes empowerment is not a panacea but, rather, needs complex understanding and application,” he says in his review. “This book is for anyone who is serious about truly empowering people and the organization. Do not let the copyright date mislead you. The ideas and practical wisdom in this book are timeless. Because it is so deeply rooted in the deeper causalities of human behavior — versus trendy jingoistic soundbites — this book creates a timeless reservoir of wisdom.”

How the Book was Created

Walking the Empowerment Tightrope was written just after the author, Robert P. Crosby, helped in a company turnaround. Two years after closure seemed imminent for the first U.S. manufacturing plant that utilized “self-managed” teams, Business Week reported a 72% productivity gain for the company. Crosby had also just helped an authoritarian manager from an organization under regulatory fire learn how to appropriately involve his employees and helped their umbrella organization achieve strong and sustainable ratings.

Pfeiffer Associates received permission to use the book’s chapter 3 as an example. The 54-page chapter details actions that help improve 25 performance factors that were identified by measuring data from more than 500 companies. When these factors are implemented, our research indicates that productivity and quality increase, absenteeism and accidents decrease, and employees are more likely to be motivated in their work environment.

The Issue of Authority

This book on employee empowerment deals directly with the issue of authority in organizations. Crosby has helped companies recover from authoritarianism by teaching them to utilize the knowledge and inherent drive of their work force more effectively. He shows organizations the importance of being more clear about the appropriate and needed role of authority. Crosby has also rescued companies who have been swept up in self-management — which is actually an oxymoron, as a manager will be held responsible if and when failure becomes apparent!

The struggle between decisiveness and influence is an ongoing dance, yet leaders and followers need each other. A great issue was first perpetuated in the 20th century from these dysfunctional dances where the balance was missing. Usually, there was too much or too little authority placed in the leader. This problem is common in many types of relationships in nations, organizations and families. For example, there is a familiar polarization in families between the over-authoritarian parent and the permissive parent.

Finding the appropriate balance in leadership style is extremely difficult. Walking the Empowerment Tightrope has been written for the manager who is ready to do a different dance but not give up the leadership role that is appropriate and desperately needed. According to the book’s description, “the goal is to change the organizational dance in such a way that the whole system experiences change… and if you change your individual dance, the whole system will respond.”

System Change

The chapter on System Change is very important. Below is one of the five scenarios presented:

Scenario I: One of your computer analysts comes to you. He appears sad and depressed, with head hanging and eyes aimed on the ground. What do you do?

Option A: You explore his feelings and try to uncover any recent problems he has had — is he having marriage woes or financial difficulties? Or you give him some advice — check in to the health clinic, take the rest of the day off, or get off his duff and get back to work.

Option B: You ask what is going well and what is not going well at work. You pursue how clear this person is about his role and whether he has the information and authority to do his work. You find out if his opinions are sought when decisions are made that will affect his work procedures or the equipment and materials he uses. You examine how clear you have been about your sponsorship.

Notice that the Option A response to the problem is individual and personal. The advice has to do with what the worker can do to recover. This option assumes an individual problem. Option B is the systems option. Management processes have to be shifted to change the environment or a part of the environment (e.g., role clarity, clarity about who is boss, etc.). If all of the items listed in Option B are in place and the depression persists, then Option A response may be appropriate.”

Choosing individual strategies may get results today and satisfy your reactive need, but if the system does not change and you do not “dance” differently, then the same problems will surface again and again.

Engaging Employees Effectively

There is no better way to engage employees more effectively than that process described in Chapter 5. Crosby describes a powerful — yet unusual — way to use a survey. The organization that performs this process will not only become better aligned around goals, but much more clear about its priorities.

The chapter says:

“We know what does not work. It does not work to survey people and not show the results. It also does not work to survey people and have top management or an outside expert develop recommendations (prescriptions). It does not work to survey people and have a general session and report the results to all concerned and do nothing else. These approaches all have been tried hundreds of times and, with rare exception, been found wanting. People become irritable and defensive, with a resulting lowered morale and decreased work efficiency.”

Walking the Empowerment Tightrope’s timeless advice is sure to turn any struggling organization into a success. Learn more about the book here.