Case study: Empowerment in practice

Furniture company Steelcase gives employees free reign to make decisions, within clear frameworks.

Last Updated: 19 Feb 2018


US furniture manufacturer and workplace consultancy

Turnover: $3bn (2017)

Employees: 11,700 (2017)

Empowerment is delegation on speed. It’s where workers are trusted to make decisions by themselves, without constant checking or approval from micromanaging bosses. The pay-off? You unleash your employees’ full talents and creativity, they stick around longer and your business becomes more agile.

Like a free lunch, it almost seems too good to be true.

‘Oh, it sounds great, but you can’t pay your debts on sounding great,’ an FD said to us recently. ‘When your bank asks for its money, you can’t say "oh we empowered our staff not to make any money this month, so we don’t have it." You need financial control.’

And there’s the problem. Empowerment is the opposite of control. But so is chaos. If everyone’s free to take big decisions, how do you keep your company from becoming a free-for-all, with no one pulling in the same direction and everyone free to make catastrophic mistakes?

To find out, MT visited Steelcase, which has practised empowerment successfully for decades, at its state-of-the-art Learning and Innovation Centre in Munich (for a glimpse inside the futuristic LINC, see here). 

Creating a culture of empowerment

Empowerment may be about unleashing talent from top floor to shop floor, but it has to start with leadership, says Steelcase’s senior vice president EMEA Guillaume Alvarez. Unsurprisingly, this is not a simple question of simply telling people to be empowered.

‘Everyone says the same things. They care for the environment and see their employees as their most important asset and aspire to innovate. Who would not want to innovate or say we don’t care about our employees? These words have no impact. The fundamental role of leadership is to create an experience for employees, in an authentic and genuine way. That’s the only way to impact behaviours,’ Alvarez says.

He’s at pains to express that this is not at the expense of running the business – there are still profits to be made and targets to be met – but rather through active role-modelling.

For empowerment to work, for instance, the boss can’t keep looking over people’s shoulders: constant oversight can be as disempowering as requiring explicit approval. If a senior manager wants junior employees to have freedom to act, they’ll have to do the same for their own direct reports.

In a similar vein, empowerment involves embracing failure, an inevitable by-product of freedom. If employees fear being responsible for failure, they are far less likely to try something new. And who better to role model embracing failure than the boss?

‘I’ve had many failures – I’ve been in the company for 34 years! The worst were related to not taking into account the human component of what we do. You get tempted to design a project but you forget that people are actually going to have to do this,’ says Alvarez.

When empowerment goes wrong

Role-modelling and empowerment in general assumes that people will do the right thing when you trust them. But human nature being what it is, it surely must go wrong from time to time, as MT’s FD friend put so aptly.

Alvarez talks about the importance of giving control over little things, like moving the furniture or deciding for yourself whether you want to travel business class or economy. ‘I haven’t checked a travel expense in years,’ he exclaims.

So there’s no oversight at all?

‘We do have an audit group, and our algorithm would spot unusual things,’ Alvarez concedes.

Of course, there has to be financial control to protect a company from risks. It only took one empowered Nick Leeson to break Barings Bank, after all. But that doesn’t mean it has to be heavy handed.

On a more prosaic level there’s a question of how, when everyone has freedom to act, you keep the company pulling together as one, in the same direction.

Alvarez says the keys for Steelcase are building trusting relationships and using two common frameworks – design thinking and the critical thinking model – which were introduced to the company in the 1990s and which Alvarez says are practised every single day, everywhere from the design studios to the finance department.

‘You need to have a really well-constructed central question and then one point of view owner, who we call the officer on deck. Then you assemble a team and go into the think phase. The point of view owner expresses a point of view, it’s debated and once it’s formalised it becomes an implementation issue,’ Alvarez says. ‘That’s the moment when things get adapted to budgets, timing, resources and constraints.’

And if the project isn’t working?

‘The point of view owner has responsibility to declare that it’s not working and go back to the think phase, or say it’s just not solvable.’

It may sound too good to be true, but Steelcase isn’t the only company that swears by empowerment. It can clearly work, at least as an aspiration. As with so many good ideas, though, success depends on implementation not sentiment. Pasting the word empowerment into your corporate values page won’t cut it.  

Image credit: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock


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