Too much of a good thing?

We all agree that empowerment is a good thing, right? That having employees make decisions -- after proper training and, of course, giving them the right tools -- is better not just for employees, but for the organization, too. That things get done not just faster (by eliminating layers of "approval") but better as well (because employees are closer to customers and the challenges of satisfying them).

Can you ever have too much of a good thing like empowerment?

A friend of mine says you can. A senior executive, he empowered a team of middle managers to take over an important product-redesign project. The team met for some months, checking in with him periodically, until it presented its final recommendations. Flush with empowerment and confidence, the team outlined a plan that was innovative and bold. Not only was one of the firms core products completely redesigned in terms of utility, but in its appearance as well.

My friend loved the products new features. He was less pleased with elements of the marketing strategy and package design. But swayed by the teams enthusiasm and his own commitment to empowerment, he approved the entire plan.

When the new product appeared, my friend still harbored his original doubts, but released it all the same. Even when early customer feedback was mixed -- customers loved the new ease-of-use but were put off by some of the packaging -- he stayed the course, convinced that both he and his customers would eventually come to love all aspects of the redesigned product as much as his empowered team did.

Unfortunately, they didnt. And three months into his product launch, my friend found himself calling the team back together to fix what wasnt working. What would his team say, he worried, if he simply ordered changes? How would they respond the next time he "empowered" them, only to keep a closer rein on the process and product?

What the team did say surprised my friend. Far from being angry about his interference, each team member confessed to having been uneasy about some or all of the product design elements that went wrong, but hesitating to say anything for fear of ruining the "empowered" culture their boss sought to create. One unquestioned mistake led to another in a chain of empowerment gone bad until the flawed product met with the only reviewer unconcerned about anyones feelings: the customer.

"I hadnt empowered people," my friend says now, "so much as I had abdicated. With no leadership, no vision, and no feedback, every idea seemed as good as the next -- until we actually had to sell the damn things."

The moral, of course, is that empowerment -- like most good things -- is a tonic best used in moderation and mixed well with honest, uncompromising communication. Because even if you and your team succeed in lying to each other about your mistakes, the market wont.

And thats a good thing, right?

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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