How Enforcement Kills Empowerment: 4 Critical Differences

Stop saving fish from drowning!

Ancient tribes, seeing a human resemblance on the face of some fish, concluded that these fish were, in fact, human beings.

Aghast that these “people” might drown, the fish were taken from the water and placed in the open air, killing the very creatures they were trying to save.

Saving fish from drowning is a metaphor for doing something you think is good, that actually turns out to bring harm.

Modern day leaders do exactly the same thing when they pursue a path of enforcement, something on the surface that seems to be good, versus the empowerment of their people.

Here are the four critical differences between the two:

1. Empowerment has a different starting point

Enforcement starts with standards. Otherwise known a rules, guidelines, or policies. Good things, to be sure, but limited in their ability to impact people.


Because no rule, no guideline, no policy can predict what will actually happen in the real world.

Empowerment starts here: Your purpose, the cause your company exists to fulfill, and your values, the guiding principles you’ll follow to fulfill it.

A deep, internal commitment to your company’s purpose and values will guide your people to make the very best choices in the vast array of circumstances that confront them every day.

2. Empowerment provides a different customer experience

Rules, guidelines, and policy as a starting point directly impacts customer experience as well.

When asked to do something out of the ordinary, employees being led by enforcement reply (Let’s say it all together now), “That’s not our policy.”

Last week I was delivering a leadership development workshop in the private board room of a large dining facility. We had been there all morning, and the server had attentively filled up our coffee and water containers.

When lunch came, he brought us an amazing Caesar salad with grilled salmon on top. He then took away our plates, with barely a disruption in our ongoing discussion, and brought us a dessert tray loaded with chocolate chip cookies.

As he began to leave the room, I joked, “May I have a hot fudge sundae too?”

His response was brilliant, “Would you like a hot fudge sundae?”

This answer made clear what drove our server from the first minute we stepped into the board room. And it wasn’t, “I’m sorry, sir, but it’s not our policy to give hot fudge sundaes to losers like you.”

3. Empowerment delivers different results

Misguided attempts to increase performance by enforcement fail miserably.

The best anyone gets with enforcement is meeting acceptable standards, and your business will die in the open air when all that’s met is acceptable standards of  performance.

Here’s why.

Customer satisfaction is not good enough any more. People don’t want a “satisfactory” experience. They want to be thrilled. And there are plenty of businesses who understand that concept and are willing to do what it takes to thrill their customers.

In the college town where I live, there are lots of places to buy coffee and eat breakfast. Only Panera remembers my name, welcomes me when I walk in the door, and brings my food to the table before I have the chance to get it myself.

Guess where I schedule most of my breakfast meetings with business clients? It’s no wonder Panera is a leader in the food service industry today.

4. Empowerment creates a different internal dynamic

The final difference between enforcement and empowerment is the emotional dynamic it creates. When you try to save fish from drowning by emphasizing rules and policies, fear of failure becomes the dominant emotion people experience.

The thing that people strive to do when compliance is emphasized above all else is, quite simply, comply. This paralyzes people.

Empowerment does just the opposite. It encourages employees to step out, take risks, and get customers the hot fudge sundaes they’re asking for. Failure is not fatal in this environment, and risk taking often results in breakthrough products and world class service.

And the best part?

People will love coming to work and find their job to be an extension of who they are as a person, not just a place to punch a clock. Your business will quickly become a thriving enterprise where employees give 100% effort 100% of the time.

So stop it!

Stop leading by enforcement. It’s killing your business.

Unlock the amazing potential of the people who work for you by rallying them to a cause and inspiring them to go the extra mile to fulfill the values of your company with every customer they come in contact with.

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