Five Reasons Why Managers Don't Empower Employees

The retail associate was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

I had come in and asked to return a paper shredder for either a refund or store credit. The shredder was new, had never been used, and was still in the box.

The obstacle was the store’s rigid “no shredder returns” policy.

It was clearly designed to prevent the store from accepting returns on shredders that had been used and couldn’t be resold. That wasn’t the case here. The associate recognized this. 

Unfortunately, he wasn’t empowered to do anything except say, “No.”

In my book, Service Failure, I refer to employees in this situation as double agents. Employees who aren't empowered must often choose between making the boss upset or making the customer upset.

It’s a no-win situation.

Empowerment seems like an obvious solution for so many customer service problems.

  • Employees are happy because they can solve more problems.
  • Customers are happy because problems get solved faster.
  • Bosses are happy because they aren’t constantly interrupted.

So, why aren’t more employees empowered to do the right thing for their customers? This post explores five reasons why.

#1 Fear

Managers are afraid that an empowered employee will make costly errors.

Let’s say that employees in the office supply store are empowered to determine whether to allow a shredder to be returned. What if the employee makes a bad decision?

Suddenly, the company is out the cost of the shredder since it can’t be resold. The costs can add up fast if employees make too many bad judgment calls. 

Managers feel safer creating a rigid policy so these bad calls don’t happen.


#2 Consistency

Empowerment gets tricky when you have more than one employee.

Different employees might make different decisions in the same situation. A great example is the airlines’ limits for carry-on bags.

Let’s say a gate agent allows Passenger A to board with three small bags, even though the limit is two. Another gate agent requires Passenger B to check one of her three bags. You can imagine how upset Passenger B might feel when she sees Passenger A boarding the plane with three bags.

That creates a fairness problem. Inconsistency can also lead to unreasonable expectations. 

Passenger A might expect to board every flight with three bags based on his initial experience. He might become quite upset if a different gate agent enforces the two-bag limit on another flight.

A manager might feel its easier to be consistent if employees are all expected to follow the same rules to the letter.


#3 Perception

Some managers believe that customers are constantly trying to take advantage of the company.

The math rarely proves this to be true, but managers perceive that it's a fact:

  • Customers will invent problems to get something for free.
  • Customers will make up a sad story to get you to bend the rules.
  • Customers will yell and scream until they get their way.

Creating rigid rules seems like a way to protect employees from these conniving customers. Employees can’t be bullied into giving away the store if they aren’t allowed to.


#4 Laziness

Some managers are too lazy to empower their employees.

This isn’t without good reason. Empowerment takes a lot of work.

  1. You must create clear guidelines.
  2. Employees must be fully trained.
  3. You must continuously monitor their decision-making and give them feedback.

It can seem like its more efficient to just create a rigid policy and avoid all the effort that empowerment requires.


#5 Role

Employees might not realize they’re empowered. 

Employees often see their role as something other than serving customers. The language they use when they describe their jobs can be very telling:

  • A cashier might say, “I ring up purchases.”
  • A hotel front desk agent might say, “I check people into their rooms.”
  • A contact center agent might say, “I respond to customer emails.”

Notice the emphasis on the transaction.

Employees who have a transactional view of their customer service jobs are less likely to empower themselves.

  • The cashier might not respond when the customer tells them there was something they couldn’t find.
  • The front desk agent might be at a loss when a guest arrives complaining that the airline lost his luggage.
  • A contact center agent plowing through emails might miss a chance to go the extra mile to solve a customer’s problem on the first contact.


Take Action!

So, how do you overcome these obstacles and empower your employees?

You can find a few action steps in this post. I also devote a full chapter to the topic in The Service Culture Handbook (Chapter 9). 

For now, I can give you a preview. One of the first steps to empowering employees is letting go. An effective manager can’t control everything. You must be willing to trust your employees. If you can’t do that, you can’t empower them.