Empowerment Requires Encouragement

We all want employees who are empowered to think. That doesn’t always turn out the way we hoped.

Girl-ScoutLast week the news feeds carried a story about a Girl Scout in San Francisco who set up her cookie table in front of a medical marijuana dispensary. She sold 100 boxes in two hours. I’m guessing that is substantially better than the results from an average Walgreen’s location.

In Colorado, the Girl Scout hierarchy immediately issued an edict forbidding their scouts from doing the same, nipping the problem in the bud, so to speak. (Although in Colorado even a medical justification for purchasing marijuana is no longer necessary.)

The annual cookie selling campaign is a big deal in Girl Scouting. There are incentives, or at least recognition, for selling the most cookies. I can understand the concern of the leadership at the prospect of young women in their uniforms as fixtures in front of pot palaces all over town. It’s probably not the best overall image for scouting as a whole; but you have to admire her entrepreneurial spirit. She was trying to support the stated goal — selling lots of cookies.

In business, we have a choice between controlling every action of our employees and letting them try new things on their own. The first approach is micromanagement, and eventually leads to a business where every new idea, and each variation from the rules, reverts to the owner for adjudication. Such stifling of initiative creates bottlenecks. It slows down the company’s reaction to change, and chains the owner to daily operations.

Employees need guidelines. If the scout in San Francisco had sold two hundred boxes at half price, it wouldn’t achieve the overall fundraising objective. There should be a clear delineation of the limits to decision-making without prior approval.

Even within those limits, employees with the best of intentions will still do things you don’t like. They create a shortcut in a process, or grant a concession to a customer, thinking that they are serving the overall company goal.

The best response is to congratulate them on their initiative, explain why there are implications beyond their immediate purpose, and let them know that there is no penalty for experimentation within your guidelines.

Drawing up a whole new set of rules in an attempt to prevent them from making a mistake in the future throttles their creativity and hinders your flexibility. Do it too often, and you will be stuck in farming micromanagement.

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2 Responses to Empowerment Requires Encouragement

  1. Hi John,
    I think few business owners would call micromanagement a good thing, if you put it in those terms. The trouble is finding the balance between delegation that keeps your business strong and creates a product you can continue to be proud of and realizing that all of this does require some amount of letting go. I’ve left this comment over in the BizSugar community as well where Christi Brendlinger was good enough to share this post. Wonder if you or she or both could share some guidelines with our community about exactly how you go about striking this difficult balance.

    • John F. Dini says:

      It’s a great question, Heather. I think there may only be a state of imbalance. Either you are giving employees too much leeway, and suffering the occasional setback because of it, or you are trying to avoid the setbacks, and reining them in. The “balance” lies in determining how much of a mistake a company can afford in the name of learning.

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