Empowering Your Employees Part 1

Today, we are going to talk about empowering people. How do we turn on the switch to high performance? To kick us right off I want to start with a quote from John Maxwell. "A leader is great not because of his power, but because of his ability to empower others." Those of you who don't know John Maxwell, I would encourage you to check him out. A book that I can highly recommend is 21 Irrefutable Flaws of Leaderships.

Benefits of Empowerment (Gallup Q-12 Survey 2012)

  • Employee Retention
  • Higher Attendance
  • Safety
  • Accuracy
  • Productivity
  • Profitability

All of these range from 20-50% in marked differences in improvement if you have an atmosphere that is filled with high morale, encouragement, empowerment, and company engagement. It's absolutely critical that you create this type of atmosphere. As having been a leader for over 2 decades, I also understand that we can run into a lot of difficulties with our team members; sometimes it can really throw us for a loop. They can send us putting out fires and dealing with situations that we never anticipated. So, I got to thinking—what if our team members came with consumer's warning labels? I've brought with me today four consumer's warning labels, and as I think about this, it's kind of comical because oftentimes we bring people in, go through the interview process, and have no idea what we are getting into once we get them onboard and we find out.

The first one of the four is peanuts. And yes, it says exactly what you see there. These peanuts may contain peanuts or peanut by-products. Eat at your own risk! Now we have a Vidal Sassoon hairdryer. "Instructions for Use: Do not use while sleeping." Then a Razor scooter. "Warning. This product moves when in use." I've often thought at times as a leader that I would have liked my people to actually move when they are in use.

Necessary Significance

As unpredictable as all of our people can be, we all share a common thread, a central need. This need is so great that even infants will physically die if they don't receive this one need. It stays with us throughout our lifetime and into adulthood; even into old age. When leaders can catch on to how important this one need is and we can deliver it to our people, this is when we can begin to see real change in our organizations. So what is this need? Necessary significance.

When people have a sense of contribution where they are giving back to something bigger than themselves, when they are allowed to be appreciated and valued and offer their talents and abilities to an operation for its success… when they feel empowered and they experience engagement, and they have clear vision and clarity, this is when they perform at their highest levels.

Andre’s Story

In 2005, I was asked to launch a department for a very large non-profit organization with over 20 internal departments. I knew I was in for it when I got in and the leadership sat me down and said, “Please, stop the bleeding.” At this point, I started my strategy. About a year and a half into the full seven years that I was there, I knew I needed a key person—someone that could run alongside of me and help me to execute the vision fully and completely. So, I was very choosy and ended up with about 30 total applicants on my desk and then started to sift through them from there. You all know the application process, the review process, going through all the tests, the interviews, etc. etc. It can be quite arduous.

As I got through these, I narrowed it down to one that I was going to ask. But as fate would have it, I had one candidate step forward that wasn't on the list and ask me for the opportunity. The other 5 candidates were great in all their qualifications and so forth, but the one thing that they didn't have was something I was looking for. So, I sat down with him and did the interview. I was very impressed. He had 15 years in management, had all the credentials he needed for the job, and he had the one thing I was looking for—he was authentically interested in the success of other people. People are the ambassadors to your vision. They are the ones that are going to make or break you. I always knew as a leader that I was nothing without my people. When you can find time to empower people and take some of these initiatives I'm going to share with you today, you will notice a marked difference in the way that they perform for you.

In the end, I decided to take him on. His name was Andre. For the first three months, he performed extremely well. He accomplished every task I asked him to and did so with excellence. He was getting along with the team extremely well, and I was quite proud of my choice. However, towards the end of those three months something happened. Andre started to crumble and make some mistakes that were pretty serious. This is where the consumer's warning label would have been nice because the mistakes he made were so serious that I would have had every right to let him go. However, instead I sat down with him and started to talk with him and let him know all the things I saw in him. I explained to him why I hired him, all the qualities he had, and talked about all the accomplishments he had made in the short three months that he had been on board. As I talked to him I watched him sink down into his chair because I think he thought he was going to lose his job. I continued to talk to him and I said Andre I hired you in because I believed in you, and I still believe in you.

That’s when he began to explain what had been going on. I found out that not only had he just been through a terrible divorce, there were two children involved, there were visitation battles, he wasn't getting along with his ex-wife, and his parents had gotten in the middle of this. Now here's a man in his mid-30's, so it doesn't really matter how old you are, when you have issues like these they can really come crashing around you. To deal with it, he decided to drink too much, so that was just the icing on the cake. That's why he was making these irrational decisions and mistakes on the job.

After I heard his story, I decided to opt for compassion. I said, “Andre: I need three things from you: Number one, allow me to appoint you a male mentor, someone that can come alongside of you, assist you, and help you along the way, and get you through this season in your life. Number two, allow me to be your mentor as your leader, hold you on task here on the job, assist you, and retrain you. Number three, if you will grab ahold of the vision that I already imparted to you, and you will run with it as fast and as far as you can and impart it to every other team member here, then I'll give you another three months.”

I watched as he sat back up in the chair, had tears well up in his eyes, ran out of my office, and said “You got it!” Over the next three months, I continued to pour into him, to believe in him, and to give him opportunity after opportunity to succeed and exhibit his greatest talents. He didn't let me down. As a matter of fact, he went above and beyond what he even thought he could do.

It wasn’t a perfect change, however. Giving people the opportunity to succeed also means as a leader you have to give people the opportunity to fail as well as succeed. I gave Andre platform after platform believing in him to do an excellent job and he not only exceeded my expectations over and over and over, (and yes he did fail a couple of times) but he got back up and figured out how to make it right.

But here was what I didn't expect. He not only went on to impart this vision to every single team member as I had asked him to, but he began to believe in them. As I believed in him, he started believing in others and giving them opportunities to shine and exhibit their greatest talents. Over the course of the three months, not only was he walking taller, gotten away from the drinking, and turned his life around, but he had touched a lot of other lives on our team. As we moved into the fourth month, what I saw was amazing. The team members were going through the hallways, high fiving, fist bumping, saying “One team, one fight!” Not only had it changed the atmosphere of my operation and what I was executing, but it had touched every department and it created a sense of unity as one another was able to believe in each other to shine and to accomplish great things.

The Danger of Disengagement

70% of corporate America is disengaged, costing America over 450 billion dollars a year. This is beyond a staggering statistic, this is more like an epidemic. I've been studying this for over a decade, and it hasn't changed but one percent.

Disengagement and active disengagement are pretty much the same with the exception that actively disengaged means that they really checked out, are probably pursuing other employment, and are pretty much going through the motions, coming in and leaving every day. Disengagement means that they are still kind of trying, but they are very frustrated at this point and thinking about leaving.

To offer you an analogy that would help you to understand this a little bit better as to what disengagement is, imagine all of us carry around a glass jar with a spicket at the bottom. That glass jar begins to open up and pour out the second we pull into the parking lot or clock in and start to work on different issues and have struggles or difficulties on the job. The more struggles and difficulties we have, the faster that beverage can run out of the glass jar.

For some people, this can be really devastating because not all of us come in with a full jar. As a matter of fact, according to the statistic, only 30% have anything even close to full, the rest of us just have a little in the jar to begin with. That could be because of personal matters or things on the job. We as leaders have an opportunity; on our desks sits a picture that's labeled empowerment. We can sit there and continue to crunch numbers, have our board meetings (which I think are extremely important, I spent my fair share of time working over PNLs and creating spreadsheets) and trying to calculate and figure out where our money was going. But we can also, at the same time, pick up that picture that's on your desk that's labeled empowerment, and go back out and refill the jars of your people.

Combating Disengagement

Now how do you top that? We talked about it- engagement, empowerment, encouragement, appreciation, contribution, clarity, and vision, all of the things that we've already gone through and mentioned to you. All of us here are leaders in some way, shape or form. Whether we are a leader in our community, home, business, group that we are involved in—we all have the opportunity to pour back into others and to create a change for them, a legacy.

Let me ask you a question- has anyone ever believed in you? Perhaps it was a coworker, a cousin, a friend, a sister, a brother, a coach, teacher, or even a mother or a father. If they believed in you, what were you able to accomplish? How did that advance you? How did it make you feel? Believing in someone is one of the greatest things you can do. As a leader, this can be one of the most powerful tools you can offer people.

The Greatness of Google

For discussion, I have a company that I'm going to share a little bit of information about that demonstrates excelling in empowerment and engagement. Laszlo Block is the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google and he has implemented several initiatives through the course of the years that he's been there. As you know, Google has been one of the best and brightest companies to work for, a position they have held for five years. Of the initiatives they have shared, I'm going to give you two of them.

Encouraging Exploration

The first one of them is called the “20% Project Policy.” In this policy, all of his team members, which is about 14,000 people, get 20% of their time each week to spend time on projects, ideas, concepts, innovations that inspired and motivated them personally. This means not only do they get to exhibit their talents, but they get to do so in the context of the company that is already very successful. They get that platform of giving back, of being a part of something bigger than themselves. To put it in perspective, 20% of every week is one full day of work. Not only does this raise morale exponentially, but in addition to that it's a win-win for Google, because they get to reap the benefits of all the ideas and concepts that have been developed by these people. Laszlo stated that this initiative taps into talents that would go undiscovered.

Reaching for Results

The next one is that he surveys his team regularly. If you don't currently have a system in place where you are getting employee satisfaction surveys out say twice a year, you are missing out. Laszlo, as he surveys, gleans a lot of information that is very helpful to not only analyze the current initiatives he has in place, but even looking at future initiatives. Now one thing that he's mainly looking for is his lowest performing leaders. When he finds those, he does something that's different than most of corporate America. As a consultant, I  commonly see organizations that pull out the lower performing leaders, sit them in a chair, and then start dealing out the ultimatums. (Verbal warnings, written warnings, do this by this date, or perform this by this date, or if you don't stop doing this or if you don't start doing this.) All that does is instill fears into your leaders. I realize putting fear into people was the way things used to be done years ago and maybe it was effective at that time (though I would argue that point after the studies they’ve done on it and the results that I have seen) but I am telling you right now, it does affect somebody’s mental state in a big way.

Brain Games

How? When stress or fear is present in the brain, there are two chemicals that are released. Adrenaline and cortisol. Both of those can hit the executive center of the brain pretty hard when they are under fear or stress. Now adrenaline is a kind of  super power drug, that's the one that we all want because with it we can tackle the world. But it's the cortisol that's concerning. You see, adrenaline and cortisol are released for the purpose of the fight or flight mechanism which works absolutely fantastic on the battlefield, but not in a place of employment. The cortisol immobilizes the executive center of the brain, meaning they are not thinking clearly or rising to their fullest potential because of what' going through their mind— "What am I going to do? What about my job? My family? My reputation? What if they look at me through a microscope - how am I going to perform? How do I get this done? How do I get that done?

Pretty soon, they are living in a paranoia state, which saps their energy, sleep, and on and on the list goes. When this kind of pressure is put on a leader, they begin to perform even lower than they were before. So then of course the executive team gets together and says “Wow, he really isn't coming through on this, so we should let him go.” So, they let him go, all high-five each other, and say "Wow, that was a good idea, he didn't perform at all the last months he was here." But, as you can see, most likely (though not necessarily always) the cortisol is what kicked in.

Creating Compassion

Now I am not opposed to letting people go. I have a phrase that says, “If you can't change the people, change the people”. I've had to use that phrase from time to time, but I'm also a firm advocate in letting people go with dignity. Instead of the letting people go immediately tactic, Laszlo Block appoints mentors, consultants, or coaches to those low performing leaders, no matter what the cost is that he has to put into it—even if it's externally. I do recommend internal programs; if you can appoint mentors within your organization, that's a great way to go, but even if you have to bring them in from the outside and get a little help, it's going to cost you far less than those factors that I shared with you earlier. These types of problems are contributing to the issue that's costing America over $450 billion dollars a year.

Any guesses on the success results that Laszlo obtained from doing this? 75% show marked improvement.

In a Forbes article, Laszlo stated people are looking for meaning in their work and that they want to know what's happening in their environment. They want to have the ability to shape their environment.

I like to call this a life giving drug because compassion really does have that effect on people. I know some of you might be thinking right now “Really? Compassion? That belongs in hospitals and schools; it's great there but I can't see it in my organization.” I would want to argue that. You see, compassion creates another neural effect on the mind. Compassion, when delivered from an individual to an individual authentically or from an individual to a group, creates what's called neural resonance. When neural resonance is released, it causes unity, a special bond, and tears down naturaldefensiveness. Talk about a great way to end turf wars in your organization! Try a little compassion! Another great quote from John Maxwell "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” I don’t think that I could have said it any better.