Great leaders empower others, it’s what we do.

I walked to the back of the store toward the “copy center” to pick up an order that I had placed online. As I walked up to the register another woman and an employee were just beginning their conversation and I was able to witness their interaction.  The woman was explaining to the employee that she had a booklet, but of the eight pages she only needed four pages copied and she had crossed out the other pages. She asked him how much it would cost to have four black and white copies made, and this is where it gets good…

Employee: “Well, I have to charge a $2.99 per hand placement fee.”
Customer: “What’s a hand placement fee?”
Employee: “Well, it’s our policy.”
Customer: “But what’s a hand placement fee?”
Employee: “Well, I have to charge you $2.99 each time I set a document on the copier.”
Me: I lose it, I just start laughing and I don’t hold anything back!
Customer: Shoots me a dirty look because she thinks I am laughing at her. She quickly figures out I am laughing at the absurdity of this and she starts shaking her head. “So you’re going to charge me four “hand placement fees” plus the cost of the copies? You’re going to charge me $12 to set this on the copier four times?”
Employee: “Um, yeah, that’s our policy.”
Me: I start laughing even harder! I’m in full-on comedy club mode.
Employee: Shoots me a dirty look.
Customer: Looks at me in disbelief, jaw wide open.
Me: “Ma’am, go to Fed Ex, you’ll do it yourself and it will cost you less than a dollar.”
Customer: “Thank you! Have a great day!” And she walks out of the store without spending a dime, let alone paying for four “hand placement fees”.
Employee: Now has to come down and help me but I can’t stop laughing… it was awkward….

But this is what happens when leaders, who are greatly distanced from the people they serve, make decisions on policy. Empowerment goes out the window while new policies and procedures are pushed down the pipeline.

In this example, there is no doubt that someone who hasn’t worked in the copy center for decades, if ever, is now making decisions about copy center policy. However, in healthy cultures, those who are most directly in contact with customers and those most impacted by policy have a clear voice in the process. Additionally, in healthy cultures employees are empowered to override policy in order to best serve their customers.

This applies in every working group. Teachers should have a voice about what impacts their students. Minimum wage fast food employees should be heard about what the lunch time crowd is requesting. Coaches should be able to speak about what impacts their players. Housekeepers should have a say in what impacts the clients staying in multimillion dollar hotels. But far too often those who serve as the front porch to an organization or business find themselves lacking the empowerment they need to best serve the paying customers.

Great leaders listen to those who most closely work with their consumers. Great leaders will provide those employees with the space necessary to speak on behalf of their customers. And great leaders will empower their people to forego policy the moment it no longer serves their people.

Great leaders empower others, it’s what we do.