Are You Trusting Employees Or Just ‘Empowering’ Them?Chip Bell
“It’s against our policy,” has to be among the top ten show-stopping lines. It kills customers’ experiences, employees’ spirit and long-term relationships. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
I was working near Washington, D.C., and staying one night at a new hotel property of a large chain I frequent about fifty nights a year. This particular property was at a location just far enough from the airport to make renting a vehicle less expensive than taking a taxi or Uber.
Arriving at the hotel late and tired, I accidentally left the inside dome light switch on the car I had rented. The next morning I learned my battery was dead. I walked back into the hotel lobby and warmly greeting the front-desk clerk and described my need for jumper-cables plus someone with a vehicle to give the car battery a jump. It seemed a simple request.
“Let me call hotel engineering,” the front desk clerk cheerfully responded. I was beginning to feel relieved and confident. I could still be on time for my important breakfast meeting. He hung up the phone. His serious expression at least gave me some warning. “Engineering informed me the hotel has a policy against assisting guests with dead vehicle batteries. Guess you’ll have to call a tow truck.”
I was not deterred. I had invested way too much of my loyalty into this hotel chain to let this situation pass. “What’s the reason for the no-jumper-cable rule?” I asked. His voice was flat and hollow. “The engineer told me an employee in one of our hotels assisted a guest several years ago. The guest claimed it damaged his car engine and sued the hotel. We won the case, but management put in the rule.”
But, I was still not finished with this issue. “What do you think?” I asked. “Me?” he said. “I don’t know. I only work here.” His IQ seemed to be dropping before my very eyes.
“If I had been your neighbor not your hotel guest, what would you have done?” I knew there had to be some human underneath this droid-like being. He paused. “Well, neighbors do not have polices.”
The CEO of a Fortune 50 bank once told me, “If we ran our bank solely by rules and regulations, I could turn my job over to my secretary, give her the big rule book, and go play golf.” Leadership takes judgment. That means making the decisions that fall in the grey area; the ones that require ingenuity, not just intellect; and, the ones that need a reverence to core values, not just clear instructions.
But, guess what? Judgment is also required of frontline employees if we want them to deliver exceptional service not just mediocre ho-hum service. All people in service roles daily deal with the mercurial nature of humans who don’t always follow the rules, sometimes have personal issues, and occasionally get up on the wrong side of the bed. You cannot write a “law” for every situation. Besides, customers want to be treated like people, not like robots.
My wife and I occasionally travel with our well-traveled mature cat. Sometimes, we encounter a “no pets allowed” barrier. We completely understand that some hotel owners institute the blanket policy to avoid dealing with guests with cat allergies or don’t want to cordon off certain rooms for pet lovers. But, absent these conditions, the rule can rob the frontline person of making a judgment. “So, let me get this straight. Even if I paid a $250 non-refundable deposit, I still could not bring my cat?” It is a question that typically yields an “I’m sorry, it is just our rule” type response– one that leaves customers puzzled and sad for the poor rule-bound slave on the serving end of the transaction.
Don’t Let Rules Supersede Trust
Empowerment is the go-to word for leaders interested in liberty within boundaries. Its very tone has an “I am empowering you to…” license that conjures up permission with prearranged limits. More than semantics, it implies conditional independence. I know organizations that even craft “levels of empowerment” procedures. It is as if an employee has sort of a weekend pass out of corporate control jail, but with a “be back by five o’clock” condition. It suggests the gift of power rather than the release of power. Compare that to the Nordstrom simple guideline of “Use your good judgment in all situations. There are no other rules.” There is no provisional trust. You either trust or you do not trust.
It means hiring people you can trust; providing them the resources and competence to make smart decisions (empowered ignorance is anarchy); grounding guidance in a set of values, not a set of rules; and then, letting go! Errors in judgments trigger coaching, not rebuke. It was clear the front desk clerk wanted to help with jumper cables; his intuition said it was the proper thing to do for a frequent guest (I am a Platinum customer). But, he was bound by a stupid rule dictated by a “by the book” leader who cared more about avoiding than enabling. Push authority down to the lowest level—the one closest to customers paying your bills.
Trust does not mean unlimited license; it means responsible freedom. It involves helping those you lead balance stewardship with service—i.e., taking care of the customer while taking care of the organization. It is spawned and nurtured in a relationship of partnership—the “us” in trust–one that provides continual support, open communication, and a belief that employees are as good as you thought they were when you hired them.