Empowering People: How Far is Too Far?

I get this question a lot… So Phil, when you talk about empowering people, aren’t you really suggesting we’re giving them free rein? The short answer is “no,” — I’m not saying that at all. In fact, I don’t think most organizations ever have to worry about going too far when empowering people. Early in my career, I lived through a situation that showed me empowered employees can lead much further than we imagine — if and only if — we give them the chance. Let me explain.

While working as an HR Manager, I was given the task of hiring 125 new people for a new product line startup. I had 10 months to do it. And management wanted me to do it using participative team activities. In other words, by empowering our people with the some of the responsibility. It was a great challenge. And something we had never done before.

So I instituted a team interviewing plan. Four people interviewed every candidate. And the makeup of that team was very important: the HR manager, the supervisor of the individual to be hired and two interviewers with practical knowledge of the job being filled. So in other words, welders participated in the hiring of other welders; material handlers hired material handlers and so on.

The whole concept was wonderful on paper. But it was taking me, on average, three interviews for every one hire. So when I introduced the team interviewing concept, I went to people I thought would be good at the process. One such employee was Darnell.

Empowering People May Sound Easy But…

“Hey Darnell, have you heard about the interviewing process? Yeah? Well, I’d like to get you involved.”

Surprisingly, Darnell said, “I’m in!”

I mean, it was just that quick. And I thought, “this is going to be easy!”

After a little training, Darnell and the other three of us started the team interviewing. To make a long story short, we interviewed 14 or 15 people — without one hire! So much for “easy!”

Now remember, I’m expecting three interviews for one hire — we’re four times that and no hire! And Darnell was the hold-out. He just kept saying, “I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”

Are You Ready to Take Empowered People Seriously

Finally, I thought, I’m going to have to pull Darnell aside and have a conversation. I said to Darnell, “Is it possible that your standards are too high?”

Listen to that question… This is coming from the HR guy! I will never forget what Darnell said to me. He looked me square in the eye and said,

“Phil, do you remember the day you asked me to participate in this process? Do you remember how quickly I accepted your invitation?  Well, you didn’t know this. But I’ve been standing on this line doing my job, trying to understand why you and others did your job so poorly.

“I always said, ‘if I ever got the opportunity to make a difference in this organization, I am going to seize that opportunity.’

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This is the Goal of Empowering People

And he finished with, “I don’t think we should hire one person that can’t make this organization better. And personally, I’m going to hold out until we find the right ones.”

I stepped back, took a long hard look at myself and said to Darnell,

“I’m sorry. You are absolutely right. Our job should not be to fill holes. Our job is to build businesses. Let’s go back in there and continue the process until we get it right.”

We hired 125 people over the next 10 months and we had a turnover of only two! And it’s interesting — I still remember those two interviews. We had interviewed late into the evening and we were tired. The team said,  “Oh, let’s just hire them.”

We let our standards fall.

The Results of Empowering People

One more thing about the employee Darnell hired…

I was out on the floor touching base with all the new hires and Darnell called out to me, “Hey Phil, come here.”

I walked over to Darnell and as I motioned to his hire, I said, “What do you think about our guy?”

Darnell quickly replied, “He is the best employee we’ve ever had!

I said, “Really? Why do you say that?”

He said, “…because I used to be the best employee — now he is. And I hired him!”

And when Darnell said that, I knew he had taken full ownership, responsibility and great pride, not only in hiring, but in making sure that this young employee developed in a way to keep the organization growing stronger!

My response to the question, “How far is too far when empowering employees?” is this. I don’t think most organizations ever have to worry about going too far. Most of them won’t go nearly far enough.

The experience with empowering Darnell and the interviewing team showed me empowered people can lead much further than we imagine — if and only if — we give them the chance.

How to Empower People

So Phil, how do I know an employee is ready for increasing levels of empowerment? I’m glad you asked! And it’s a great question for organizations wanting to ensure a steady stream of ready talent. Using these 6 progressive stages for empowering people is a good way to get started.

I’ll never forget Darnell and what he taught a young HR manager about empowering employees.

So what have you learned from empowering people? I would love to hear — the good and the bad! Please share below.

Give Your Employees the Chance to Lead — We’ll Show Them How

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Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE is committed to helping organizations transform their business outcomes by building engaged employee relationships. He is an award-winning keynote speaker and author on engaged leadership and communication. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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