The simplest way to obtain the authority you feel you need to devolve decision-making downwards through the line, is to go and ask for it. Even if you believe the environment won’t support your efforts, you don’t know until you ask. As one manager asking for this kind of authority in this case study said, “Every door I kicked swung open.”
Also, managers are likely to find that their people are generally more capable and more trustworthy than they are given credit for – and more willing to take on responsibility.
In this case study, one of our clients operating in an industry with high technical complexity found itself in the position of applying very high levels of control in the workplace. This over time led to a high price being paid in terms of workforce engagement, ownership and accountability.
A prevailing view developed over time that turning this around would be a slow and arduous process.
There was a rule or policy to govern every decision (I was told), and managers at middle levels of the organisation would simply not be allowed to hand authority downwards – particularly when it came to practical things like spending decisions. This would mean re-writing a lot of the rules, and would take time and effort to convince others to both do and effect.
As one logistics manager in this business learned: assuming you are not allowed or won’t be supported is a recipe for failure before you begin.
In this environment I had to work with a number of more senior leaders in the business to help them think about how they could begin to positively impact levels of empowerment through the line.
One of the managers who was part of my groups looked after logistics. Attending one of our sessions on Empowerment, she shared how she had recently taken over the area, and had found herself inundated with demands for her to take decisions far beyond what she felt was reasonable.
During the workshop there was much discussion about the levels of control in the business, how rule-bound the environment was, and how difficult it would be to obtain the necessary authority to push decision making down. While there was general acceptance of the idea that empowering people was a critical part of shifting the culture, the view was that this would be a slow and arduous process.
This response is not unusual in our experience. Often the steps toward giving up control are small and incremental, and gather momentum as confidence and learning builds.
During the closure of the session, participants were asked to commit to taking some action to increase levels of empowerment in their areas. Everyone made some practical commitments to effect this, but the logistics manager had the longest list, and many of her issues were about spending decisions which were felt would be the hardest to get right. She conceded that there was a lot of work to do in terms of empowerment, and this would likely be a long journey.
I returned to the group 4 weeks later to review progress. I was pleased to see that everyone in the group had taken the first small steps toward giving up control, and that positive progress was being made. We went through everybody in the group. The logistics manager was the last person to give feedback on progress.
What she had succeeded in doing in 4 short weeks given the environment was staggering. She reported that firstly, she had successfully advocated for and arranged the removal of clock-in requirements for her managers on the basis that if they could be trusted to lead people, they could be trusted to arrive for work and leave on time. Secondly, she handed over a healthy budget for each first line manager to spend on safety-related improvements. Thirdly, she had also handed a general discretionary budget to her immediate operations managers for incidental expenses designed to speed up delivery of minor day-to-day needs. Finally, inundated by requests for training budget sign-offs, she had also handed all spending decisions related to training requests to her management team, on the basis that they were best placed to know whether training requests were appropriate or not.
When I asked her how managers were handling all this new authority she simply said, “For the most part, responsibly.”
Her thinking here was that the money was being spent anyway, the only problem was that she was having to approve it all, which was both time consuming and unnecessary. Pragmatically she was not in a position to understand whether every spending decision was in fact appropriate – her managers were far better placed and experienced to make those decisions, and they had been missing an opportunity to speed up decision-making and increase accountability.
As a safety net she implemented spending review meetings every month. These were specifically aimed at reviewing spending decisions already made in the month and learning from them, rather than as a control mechanism. She felt at the time that she might review this once she was confident all managers were well aligned on what appropriate spending entailed.
When I asked her how she managed to effect all this she said not a single person she asked for support or permission from said “no”. As she put it, “Every door I kicked swung open. My learning here was not to assume you will not be given the authority you need – go and ask for it, and provide convincing reasons why you need it.”
Two months later, at her request, I talked to her leadership team of about 20 people, none of whom had been exposed to Legitimate Leadership, about the concept of Empowerment. I took the opportunity to do a diagnostic on their perceptions of empowerment in their workplace.
This is a fairly simple exercise which we do by asking people questions about whether they feel they have been given decision making authority recently (or have had it taken away), and then, on the balance of their experiences, drawing conclusions about whether empowerment levels have changed.
In this case, I asked the participants to say whether they felt more empowered, less empowered or no change from 6 months previously. Of the 19 managers present, none felt less empowered, 15 felt more empowered, and 4 felt no change. The general conclusion was that this was a major shift from the preceding 6 months.
On reflection, the logistics manager drew two insights from the exercise: