Powerful leaders partner with and empower employees

To fix organizational problems or make major changes, managers often hire consultants to analyze what’s happening and provide improvement recommendations. The consulting firm usually interviews people, runs focus groups, and gathers input from a variety of sources. Lots of good ideas are gathered and the best ones presented to leaders along with a recommended action plan.

As a firm that does a lot of this kind of work, we don’t find the practice objectionable! What’s sad is how frequently the ideas that excite leaders have been inside the organization for years. Too often, leaders are hearing them for the first time. Or they are finally paying attention because the ideas and plans come from outside experts. This is a big leadership failure.

In “Harnessing Everyday Genius,” in the latest edition of Harvard Business Review, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini show what a big problem this is. They cite a recent Gallup survey showing that only one in five U.S. employees strongly agree with the statement, “My opinions seem to count at work.” It gets worse. An American Working Conditions Survey found that “just 11% of frontline U.S. employees said they were consistently able to influence decisions important to their work.” The researchers’ analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data “shows that 70% of U.S. employees are in jobs deemed to require little or no originality.”

Everybody loses. Hamel and Zanini conclude, “As a result, a vast reservoir of human ingenuity is going untapped. That depresses performance of individual firms and the economy overall.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. The article centers on how the France-based tire manufacturer, Michelin, harnessed the genius and engagement of frontline teams for major performance breakthroughs. Called “responsabilisation” (French for empowerment), the company saw plants who’ve embraced this approach reduce deficits from 7% to 1.5%, productivity increase by 10%, absenteeism drop to virtually zero, expand their workforce by a third without hiring additional managers or professional staff, and deliver $500 million of improvements.

We’ve seen that when leaders help people to help themselves, major culture shifts can generate these kinds of results. It means leaders doing it with — not to or for — their teams. Our experience is that this needs to go beyond empowerment — which stays rooted in power and hierarchy — to “empartnerment.”

Here’s three key reasons frontline teams need to be empartnered:

  1. They’re the experts in the work within their areas and have deep insight into the effectiveness of cross-functional or organization-wide processes. Their understanding of what does and doesn’t work is far greater than most managers and outside experts.
  2. Empartnerment generates greater energy and engagement. Most people want more from their jobs than just a paycheck. We want to be part of an organization with a meaningful purpose, feel like our work makes a difference, and contribute to a winning team.
  3. Frontline teams have ultimate implementation power. Too often, they’re asked to execute plans they know won’t work. Some even engage in “malicious compliance” and implement what they know are irrelevant approaches. Good — even great — strategies poorly executed wastes everyone’s time, burns money, and gives the disengagement cycle another downward spin.

Empartnerment calls for a leader shift. Good managers often empower. Great leaders empartner. Click here for a chart showing the difference. You might also want to use this 10 point check list for a leadership checkup.

A few steps by 1,000 people are far better than 1,000 steps by one person. Leaders who can tap into everyone’s genius are far more likely to help their organizations navigate our stormy seas.