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Three hard facts about empowerment

Three hard facts about empowerment
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First Published: Sun, Aug 17 2008. 11 48 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Aug 17 2008. 11 48 PM IST
What do you think about the Google model of human resource management, with its flexible work schedules and employee empowerment?
—Armando Castilla, Monterrey, Mexico
The first answer to your question is easy: We think Google’s flexible work schedule policy, which freely permits employees to work off-site, and encourages them to use one day a week to explore any kind of “what if” project that interests them, is fine—and probably harmless if not completely predictable.
After all, Google is not the first young, fast growing, highly profitable company to tell its employees that work should not feel “corporate” or gruntlike. It is practically a Silicon Valley tradition. Likewise, it is practically a tradition for such policies to ebb somewhat when, and if, growth and profits slow. For Google, even in the current environment, that situation seems unlikely in the immediate future.
The second part of your question—about empowerment—strikes us as more complicated. We support empowerment; everyone knows that managers should give their people the freedom to make decisions and take risks. But in our experience, empowerment is one of those organizational concepts—such as “creative destruction” and “collaborative work teams”—that in time, as books get written and consultants move in, starts getting surrounded by more hype than honesty.
As an antidote, we offer three hard facts about empowerment, none of which should lessen its worth, only clarify its reality:
• In “normal” companies, empowerment is not granted to everyone equally; it is earned by performance
Obviously, we are not talking here about Google, with its abnormal (although very admirable) success, and the big fat margin of error that success provides. We are talking about regular companies with average growth and profitability where, with few exceptions, managers give people the leeway to experiment with big new projects, products and services only after they have demonstrated that they can knock the smaller ones out of the park.
Sure, such managers often say they believe in empowerment, and they probably mean it—from a conceptual point of view. But general organizational discomfort with failure, not to mention the chilling discipline of delivering to budget, typically means that managers do not greenlight just anyone with a plan. They greenlight their stars with sure ideas and strong track records. Is that wrong? It is business. Results have consequences and superior ones earn empowerment.
People who are empowered to take risks and fail more than once are not organizational pariahs, but they are often damaged goods
In the television industry, a creative team can produce several pilots between hits and there is hardly a peep. But in most other industries, such tolerance is rare indeed. Sure, you hear about companies where teams which have failed at some innovative effort or another get thrown a big party, the message from management being, “We don’t punish our risk-takers—we celebrate them!” But with every additional disappointment in an organization, the empowerment glow starts to fade and very few companies continue to empower unsuccessful risk-takers—except, that is, to empower them to look for work elsewhere as soon as possible.
• Empowerment is less likely to happen in big companies than small, the opposite of how it should be
We are constantly hearing MBAs say they plan to opt out of the corporate world because big companies will stifle their ideas interminably while small ones will “empower” them to make high-impact decisions right away. They have got a point. Big companies do tend to be risk-averse, keeping decisions near the top, while small ones and, in particular, start-ups—short on resources, formality and time—tend to unleash every brain.
How ironic! Because it would take a mighty large missed bet to bring a multibillion enterprise to its knees while one relatively small miscalculated risk can destroy a million-dollar operation. Indeed, that is why we often say that the worst thing a big company can do is manage its size. It should use it, and the best way we know for a big company to use its size is to empower more people to take more swings. To your question, our sense is that Google is still enjoying the fruits of its innovation—and kudos to the company’s leadership for that. In fact, kudos to every company that truly encourages its people to make tough decisions and take risks—and especially to those companies which are straight with their employees about how empowerment really works.
©2008/By NYT Syndicate
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com. Please include your name, occupation and city.
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First Published: Sun, Aug 17 2008. 11 48 PM IST