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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Boxed Thinking and Empowerment

Two recent events drove me to write this article. The first one is the inquiry I received from a reader who is seeking my opinion if what his employers did to him was fair. The company's president disapproved his leave application at the last minute after several days of waiting and after following the company's procedure for filing . He decided to skip work despite the disapproval because he can't back out of the commitment he made which led his boss to charge him for AWOL. It's not the lack of consideration of the big boss or the employee's decision to go "AWOL" that irks me but the fact that the President had to to decide on his leave application when the employee is several layers below the company's hierarchy. The second event is a discussion I had with some friends from a large company. They were complaining about how slow people from operations are in processing the sales agents' request and their lack of flexibility to deal with special but reasonable client requests.

While the two stories are different they share a  common problem; lack of empowerment. The company President despite so many things on his plate, still go through employees' requests to take leaves of absence and makes decisions on them. If this is not micro managing, I don't know what is. There are so many reasons why I think this is wrong. First, it takes precious time away from the President to take on strategic concerns. It puts a lot of bureaucratic red tape on the processing of mundane matters as leaves administration. It slows down the decision making process and dis-empowers middle managers in managing their work affairs and relationship with their staff. The employee grievance brought to my attention shouldn't have arisen if the decision making was faster and closer to the ground.

In the case of the large  company, I think the narrowness of job responsibilities did them in. Some large companies break down job categories to such small pieces that people have to depend on procedures and structures to act on issues in front of them so that they do not go outside the box they are put in. If an issue request does not fit any of the boxes , the issue or request is rejected to the detriment of the business. While large organizations rarely feel the impact of boxed thinking due to their shear size, they lose opportunities to make their customers happy. This is probably a good thing because those who are rendered unhappy by slow action take their business to smaller and more nimble companies.

This is the message of this post, when people are empowered to make decisions, it speeds up a lot of things, prevents unnecessary problems and prevents boxed thinking. But what is empowerment and how do we know it exists in an organization? It exists when people are clear about their goals, when their decision making authority is broad enough to address special situations and when they are equipped with the necessary competencies to make appropriate decisions and perform necessary actions. Three things are necessary in order to make this happen; a results-focused job descriptions; delegation of decision making powers as close to the ground as possible; and competency building for the peace of mind of those who are delegating authority.


  1. i want to comment on your second example about this large company, because i can relate to this? 1) people are slow in responding because they are not empowered, right! but, 2) there's another reason, they don't know their job description and resposibilities. because its a company policy not to give one, so probably they're confused in doing their job. as i have said i can relate to your second example. himala... kasalanan bang humingi ako sa langit ng isang himala...

  2. @Sales strategist, LOL!

    Anyway, having no clear job description and set of identified responsibilities is still lack of empowerment. Empowerment comes from having a clearly defined set of goals and roles and authorities to go with them.

  3. "Three things are necessary in order to make this happen; a results-focused job descriptions; delegation of decision making powers as close to the ground as possible; and competency building for the peace of mind of those who are delegating authority."

    addition: open-minded superior who doesn't push his own ideas over the practical suggestions of the competent implementer :)

  4. I think they're slow to act because 'Customer Service' is not part of the Core Values of the Company. They think that it's up to the Sales Dept. to deal with Customer Service. They don't know that everyone in the company, in some ways or another are dealing with customers.. they could be internal or external. I think that Core Value should be rolled out in the form of workshops to all levels in their entire organization.


If you have an opinion about this topic or a related experience you want to share, please feel free to leave a comment but please be respectful. No bad words please or I will be constrained to delete it.