Management Articles


That Empower Word Again

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is

Managers proclaim they want to move decision making down the organization and give frontline people more freedom. But employees who have seen management trends come and go figure: "If we lay low long enough, this too shall pass."

Cynicism aside, highly involved workers can produce huge gains in quality, service, productivity and innovation. Yet many well-aimed efforts fail because they try to leap to an empowerment utopia without first putting the basics in place.

Empowerment is too often confused with superficial motivation programs designed to "turn on" employees. Snappy slogans, training sessions, newsletters, or pep rallies exhort employees to care about customers, put quality first, or "do it right the first time."

These efforts reveal management's profound ignorance of the causes of poor performance. Research consistently shows 85 to 95 percent of the service, quality, or productivity problems originate in the organization's structure and processes.

There is a right way to create a highly involved and empowered work force, but it takes enormous effort:
  • The company must develop coaching and leadership skills among supervisors, managers and executives. Management training is the key to developing a culture that encourages and supports workers' initiative.
Furthermore, many employee-involvement efforts fail in effectively involving middle managers and supervisors. As Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter puts it: "Participation is usually what the top orders the middle to do for the bottom."

Typically, employees are organized into improvement teams and hear senior executives asking for input. When they return to their jobs, they find their bosses still steeped in authoritarian attitudes.

In addition, many empowerment efforts suffer from lack of "enablement." That is, employees are not well trained, systems hinder more than help work teams and service providers, and processes are riddled with errors or delays.

As management expert Peter Drucker says, "so much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work." Managers can "empower" or zap employees until their hair is smoking. Yet if those employees are not enabled to make a difference, empowerment will be seen as a way of loading management's failures on employees' backs.
  • Employees must have skills to clarify their own expectations - and those of customers. They must be able to analyze their work processes, and to use problem-solving tools and techniques that are based on performance data.
They need to develop "people skills" such as how to resolve conflicts, present their ideas, participate on teams, and constructively channel emotions.
  • Priorities must be set. Senior executives must focus the organization on the improvements or areas of attention that are of greatest strategic value.
And improvement ideas should be evaluated and "owned" by the work groups who have to put them into action. This calls for strong senior management support in providing skills and information - and to eliminate barriers against implementing the changes.
  • The organization must align its systems - for reward and recognition, performance management, planning, and information management - to support employee involvement.
Too often, systems serve accountants, technocrats, or management. Get the cart behind the horse. Systems should serve customers or those producing, delivering, or supporting your products or services.

© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

Books by Jim Clemmer

(You are viewing the U.S. bookstore. Click here to view the Canadian store.)

Other Articles by Jim Clemmer

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. ManagerWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. ManagerWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


Place "+" (without the quotes) in front of words that must appear; "-" to exclude articles with certain words; and put double quotes around phrases. For example, fantastic search will find all case studies with either the word "fantastic" or "search" (or both). On the other hand, +fantastic +search will find only case studies with the words "fantastic" and "search". "fantastic search" will find only case studies that with the phrase "fantastic search". Note: Searches will not find words, such as 'management', that appear in more than half of the articles or words less than five letters long.


Would you like us to consider your own articles for publication? Please review our submission and editorial guidelines by clicking here.