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How to Empower Your Employees to Make Better Business Decisions

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

Steve Jobs was notorious for his autocratic leadership style. Instead of empowering his employees to make their own decisions, he would set the strategy, goals and method—and expect them to follow suit. While Apple was incredibly successful under his leadership, some of the downsides of this style are apparent since his passing in 2011 .

The most recent example involves the removal of movies from people's iTunes accounts. Jobs believed that content (like movies) could be treated like software—instead of buying it, you license it. Now, some media providers are pulling their movies from iTunes, making them unavailable to people who purchased them. If someone had been empowered while Jobs was in leadership to say, "Content isn't like software. When people buy a movie, they want to keep it forever," Apple's customers might be a little happier.

As a company leader, it can be tempting to make all the decisions yourself, but if you want to set your organization up for success (even after you leave) then you need employees who are able to make good decisions on their own—and who feel empowered to do so.

Step 1: Help Employees Predict the Results

Lots of things that sound good on paper fall apart when put into practice. It's important for your employees to stop and think about what will happen in the real world before they make a business decision. Will people act the way they expect? Will the decision actually solve a problem?

Let's say you have a manager who feels that punctuality is important in her department. She decides that if anyone is late, they will get written up. How can you, as a leader, help her think through the consequences of this decision? Ask her a few follow-up questions to get her thinking about the outcome of her decision: What happens if someone is 5 minutes late instead of 20? What happens if someone is late because of a delayed train versus someone who is late three times a week? Thinking through the different scenarios is key to helping employees make measured choices.

In the above scenario, for example, asking follow up questions allows the manager to see that having identical punishments for different situations isn't a great idea. With a blanket late policy, if an employee is stuck in traffic and is going to be late anyway, they might be encouraged to stop off at Starbucks to get their favorite drink. Is that behavior a manager wants to encourage? No. Does a manager really want to write up a conscientious employee whose train was late because of an accident? No. If you help the manager think through these possibilities, she'll predict the results and come up with a better decision.

Step 2: Share the Whys

Another aspect of good decision making is ensuring everyone knows why decisions are being made in the first place.

Let's say you wanted your customer service employees to handle higher level complaints—instead of calling a manager each time. Instead of saying, "deal with it yourself," you might give them guidelines on how to handle different situations that might come up. Then you can tell them, "we want to give our customers the best service possible, and so from now on, I'd like you to try to handle complaints you'd normally send straight to me. I follow and I trust your judgment and will back you up."

The first statement might make people feel like you are pushing your job onto them. But, the second statement lets them know that they have all of the information they need and you trust them to make good decisions.

Step 3: Provide Feedback (and More Feedback)

When you let employees make their own decisions, some will be better than others. Your job, as a leader, is to provide feedback on why something went well or why it went poorly. Of course, opinions can differ, so you need to make clear what works for your business. For example, if a customer comes in complaining about service she received and your employee offers a 10 percent discount. Was that a good decision or a bad decision?

The answer isn't straightforward across all businesses which is why it's important to let employees know why it worked or it didn't. For example, "This was a great decision because it will help retain a valued long term customer" or "This was a bad decision because we ended up losing money on this transaction."

By helping employees to think things through, explaining why, and providing feedback, you can build an environment where employees are empowered to make responsible decisions and enable them to seamlessly transition into leadership positions when the company needs them to step up.

Photo: Creative Commons

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