Why You Should Empower Employees

Several weeks ago, my wife and I headed out for a quick lunch.  I had been traveling and speaking in a few cities and was glad to be home.  Before lunch, we needed a few supplies and stopped at Target.

Target does a lot right.  Wide, brightly lit aisles.  Easy-to-find merchandise.  And friendly staff who seem happy.

When I was grabbing the items I needed off the shelf, I noticed a sign.  “Buy three of these items and get a $5 gift card,” one sign said.  The other said, “Buy two and get another $5 gift card.”  I only needed one of each item, but I thought why not take the money so I loaded up.

At the checkout counter, we paid for items and then I asked about our gift cards.  We liked the kind woman who was helping us.  She was efficient and the type who could build a relationship fast.  “I thought about that,” she responded.  “Let me check….no, this item doesn’t qualify for some reason.  I know you only bought this many so you would get the card.”

She pulled open the Target brochure, looked at the item, and still couldn’t figure why it didn’t give us the cards.  I explained that I checked the labels when I took the items off the shelf and that they were immediately behind the sign.  She shook her head and offered to have someone go check the sign.

Immediately in my mind I pictured what would happen:  A light would go off.  She would get on an intercom and bellow, “Man in Aisle 9 needs a price check!”  We would hold up the line, miss our lunch reservation, and a manager would come out to talk to us.

“Forget it,” I said, not wanting to cause a scene and not having any time to wait.  For me, the pain wasn’t worth it.  (But I’m thrifty enough that it did bother me.)

“I’m sorry,” she responded with an “I wish I could do something” attitude.

Management Lesson

This is not a story about Target.  It’s a good store.  This is not a story about the checkout clerk.  She was so nice we would seek out her line next time.

It’s a lesson for management.  And it’s all about empowerment.

The clerk knew I was telling the truth.  She checked the company flier.  I’m not exactly the type to load up on several items as a secret ploy to cheat a company out of a few dollars.

One of two things must be true.  One, I was wrong.  Perhaps she could have made the decision to give me the two gift cards and she just didn’t do it.  If that’s the case, she fooled me.  Two, and more likely, she did not have the authority to act.  And that’s a management mistake.  She was smart.  She was able to make the right decision.  (Yes, I guess we could have both been wrong and the items were incorrectly behind the sign and incorrectly labeled.)


Improves customer experience

Helps employees feel a part

Enhances job satisfaction

Improves productivity

Raises expectations

There’s always a careful balance in granting authority to employees.  If you are too lax in your standards, the company’s bottom line suffers.  But if you are too strict, you end up creating bad feelings or even damaging your reputation.

I’ve seen businesses that do this extraordinarily well.  Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan is one that comes to mind.  The employees are all informed about the financial health of the company.  They also are all empowered to make decisions.  The result is what my friend Shep Hyken calls an AMAZING customer service experience.

Employees who are granted authority to make decisions are empowered.

Empowering employees has a number of benefits for a business.


1.  Improves the customer experience.  The individual employee is not a drone, mindlessly acting as a machine.  An empowered employee can make small decisions that end up increasing repeat business and developing loyal customers.

2.  Makes employees feel like a part of the business.  It’s subjective, but find a business where employees can act and you can tell that they are more committed.

3.  Enhances job satisfaction.  It’s frustrating to an employee to know what’s right, but feel powerless to do anything.  Giving the employee some decision-making ability will decrease frustration and improve retention.  It’s easier to keep a customer than to gain a new one.  It’s also easier and cheaper to keep a trained employee than to recruit a new one.  Keep your employees longer by getting this right.

4.  Improves productivity.  You don’t need a big study on this to see it.  If I had stopped the line for a few dollars, how productive would the aisle be?  How happy would the customers be behind me in line?  Would anyone just walk out and leave their items in a cart?  I’ve seen it happen.

5.  Raises expectations.  If someone is empowered, that person has higher expectations.  I believe it’s those higher expectations that make the real difference.  I’ve seen employees rise to extraordinary levels when the bar is raised.  It becomes a catalyst for growth.

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