The Danger of Empowered Employees

Nimble companies win business. Lumbering, slow companies lose. Agile companies empower employees to make quick decisions that meet customers’ high expectations and changing business conditions.

What happens when an empowered employee resists change and stops the new revenue stream?

The Story Behind This Question of Empowered Employees

A company actively involved in promoting National Customer Service Week approached me to be an advertising sponsor. They had decided for the first time ever to sell advertising sponsorships. They sent information explaining levels of sponsorship, cost, and what each level of sponsorship gave me.   Because of my strong commitment to great customer service and brand of delivering customer service workshops I was very interested.  Initial discussions went well.  We agreed on the size of the online logo ad pretty easily.

He asked me to send a short paragraph about myself for their first email bulletin. After receiving my text, he replied that the paragraph looked great and they would run it as is.

Things suddenly changed when he sent a proof of the bulletin.  I was shocked to see they used only one line from my write-up. To make matters worse, they changed my verbiage into bland, boring words.

His question to me was “WOW, doesn’t it look great?” I called him and asked what happened? He said, “Don’t worry we want you to be happy. I’ll get back to you.” Before he hung up, I said if we are limited on the number of words, I will be happy to rewrite it.  However, the words must reflect my brand.

He emailed me a new version that was slightly longer. Sadly, the words were modified again.  It was after hours so I waited until the morning to call him. I left this voice message. “Since I don’t understand what is going on, can’t get any answers, and had no trust that the other advertising activities would be handled appropriately, I am going to pass on the opportunity to be a Gold Sponsor.  I wish you continued success.”

He sent me an email saying the source of yesterday’s struggle was the editor of the email bulletin who insisted the bulletin have the same look and feel as it had for the last 10 years.  He offered me a discount on the membership and said they would print my paragraph the way I wanted it.

What he didn’t address was the loss of trust. When I asked him if he could assure me that my other sponsorship ads for this event, my time, and my brand would not be affected by their internal struggles, he replied “Evidently you have a bad taste in your mouth about this and it’s best we terminate this relationship!”

The editor of the bulletin – one empowered employee in this whole process – stopped the revenue stream in its tracks.

Empowered Employees Who Stop Revenue Image:HoriaVarlan


If you were the leader of that organization or team, what would you say to the empowered employee (the editor) as the internal disagreement emerged? Would you focus on total empowerment and talk it out for as long as it took to hear the employees concerns even if it meant missing deadlines and losing revenue?  Or would you remind everyone of the vision of this new undertaking and empower employees on how to make that new vision come true?

I look forward to your comments, learning, and sharing.

(Special thanks to Dan Rockwell, The Leadership Freak for insightful editing of this post before publication.)

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach, delivers training for the ultimate customer experience, creating dynamic dynamic agile teams, and coaching on leading change. She teaches how to bridge the gaps of diversity, generations, personality type, culture, and geography for success in this fast paced business world. See footage of her in action at

11 Responses to “The Danger of Empowered Employees”

  1. Joe Williams says:

    Sorry to hear about your experience, Kate. I offer that from where I sit, it appears to be a clash of different expectations. You have the expectation that your brand will be preserved. The editor apparently has an expectation of control and continuity in look-and-feel. Perhaps there is a lesson learned for all of us: don’t assume. Be clear on our expectations up front, and test our assumptions. Sorry this lesson had to come at your expense, Kate. I’m sure it was frustrating.

  2. Kate;
    From the Readers Digest condensed version I can see a number of scenarios.
    The Typical scenario:
    Someone with authority made a decision and didn’t tell everyone or include everyone (i.e. editor). The editor feeling rejected and not informed of the changes or as to why things needed to change will stick to his guns. The organization is dysfunctional!
    If I was a leader coming in from outside to see why we are loosing revenue instead of gaining I would conduct a thorough investigation as to the reasons behind it.
    The person who came up with the idea failed to gather everyone and explain it and how it will work and what roles are and what is expected. More than likely they dumped it on a subordinate expecting them to take care of it. The subordinate not being trained properly or at all did what they thought was right and told the manager the job was taken care of.
    The sales person was not listening to the customer(you) but providing lip service to pacify the customer.
    Either did not take care of problem or could not get the editor to correct the problem because he does not know how to approach the editor to get cooperation.
    Then to offer a discount only to rescind it in the same conversation while terminating the business transaction speaks volumes about the lack of understanding of customer service or how to conduct business period.

  3. Kelly Riggs says:

    A thought-provoking story…thanks for posting! My sense is this situation has little, if anything, to do with empowerment. I don’t believe the editor is truly empowered, but if he is, his boss is a very poor leader. In other words, the editor’s actions reflect very poorly on the boss – either as a leader or the manner in which he (supposedly) empowered the editor. This appears to be a silo/communication issue in which two people are working at odds with each other – with completely different objectives, neither of which appears to be customer satisfaction. To answer the question you posed at the end, I would most certainly opt for Choice B – reset the vision and get everyone on the same page. Thanks! KSR

  4. Jim Morgan says:

    I think there often is confusion between “empowerment” and “independence.” This individual in effect is part of a cross-functional team of people interdependent on each other for success in their separate roles, described nicely by Joseph. But the company allows each to act as independent agents. Investing power in this *team,* not just the individuals, and setting up a team structure in which the feedback of each person affected the other person’s workplace goals, would go a long way to solving this and other problems. Great case study, Kate!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Jim,
      I love your distinction between empowerment and independence. Wonderful addition to this discussion. Thanks for contributing.

      I give my thanks to all who have added their insights to this discussion. Keep the great insights coming!

      I found this one experience to be full of learning and I will be writing a followup post soon with the customer service aspects of this same case study.

  5. Kate:

    I think empowerment is a red herring here. Obviously the editor doesn’t get the big picture. Either there has been a lack of communication or the editor is just being obstinate. There is too much of an inward focus going on here. Internally, they need to get everyone on the same page—restate the goals—and that includes the salesperson. The editor and the salesperson are both working at odds to the presumed goal of the organization: expanding influence and creating revenue in way that makes people think well of us. They need another internal discussion not about the “what” but about the “why.” “Why are doing this?”

    Sorry about your bad experience. But it illustrates an all too common issue.


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Yes Michael — the “Why” they are selling sponsorships etc… will guide them all to behavior that reaches that goal. Many thanks for weighing in on this discussion.

  6. Josh Bernoff says:

    This is not an empowerment problem, it is a communication problem. The people who feel they can change copy and the ones selling the ads need to understand each other better.

    Empowerment should be about creating customer-focused solutions, not preventing them.

    Want to know more? Read our new book “Empowered”.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Dear Josh,
      Thanks for contributing. I like your simple powerful statement — Empowerment is about creating customer-focused solutions, not preventing them. Bravo!

  7. Lori Meyer says:

    Thanks for raising an important issue, Kate. I empathize totally with your concern that your brand was compromised. I hope that future readers of your post give this issue the careful consideration it deserves — because the real danger here is not empowered employees, but that so many employees and managers do not have a clear sense of what a truly empowered employee is. The acts taken by those you worked with on this issue were not those of an empowered employee. At the same time, defining “empowered” is often a daunting challenge for organizations. A few commenters here have noted the distinction between “empowerment” and “independence” — a good point.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      True true true Lori. In my consulting work — especially when we are introducing change — I encounter many managers who don’t know and employees who think they do know. So instead of clear vision and empowerment toward a common mission and goal, they engage in a twisted version of empowerment used to justify resistance to change.
      When vision, mission, and the true purpose (reasons) are clear, then empowerment is possible.

KateNasser on Facebook KateNasser Blog KateNasser on Twitter KateNasser on LinkedIn KateNasser on Pinterest