employee empowermentI recently made a 48-hour whirlwind trip to the West Coast for a series of client presentations when I made a grim discovery: I had forgotten my phone charger.

My colleague and I zipped into a convenience store, where I quickly spotted my prize on a rack near the counter. I reached for the charger, which was clipped to the display. The only thing between me and my salvation was a thin notch of cardboard.

I asked the clerk if she could unlock the display. When she told me she didn’t have the key, I offered to tug the charger package loose from the display – to which she blurted in alarm, “DON’T DO THAT!! I CAN’T RING IT UP!!”

 That’s when I got curious. And frustrated.

“Who has the key?”

“My boss.”

“Where’s your boss?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure when he will be back”

“Why can’t I just tear the package off?”

“You just can’t, my boss would be mad.”

“If I tear this off, will it ring up just the same as if you unlocked it?”

“Yes, but I can’t let you do that.”

Our conversation continued, along with my frustration. But as I left the store – without a charger — I had an epiphany: The clerk had not been empowered. She was not in a position to do what was best for her customer. As a result, she cost the business money because she was acting out of fear – fear of her boss’ reaction to her executive decision, or lack thereof.

Are you empowering your employees? Do you have processes like Six Sigma in place to ensure that they can thrive by working in a fearless environment? If not, check out Peter Peterka before you start reading the following:

Trust them.

I know this sounds simple, but trust is at the core of empowerment. Sometimes you inherit employees – other times you hire them. In either case, it’s vital that you create and nurture an environment in which they feel valued, respected and entrusted with the responsibility and capability to do the right thing and make sound choices.

Don’t micromanage.

Put your employees in a position to lead, not follow. Don’t be afraid to let them make mistakes based on their own decisions – provided that those decisions conform to your organization’s policies and procedures. Applaud them for taking chances, and give them constructive feedback when they miss the boat. Remember: mistakes are opportunities to encourage growth, not deter it. This isn’t just key to empowerment; it’s also vital if you intend to take a relaxing vacation. Otherwise, prepare for phone calls every 30 minutes for permission – or worse – a decision or solution to the problem.

Make the ‘uncomfortable comfortable.’

I remember the day I was promoted to my first management position. The VP walked into my cubicle, said “come with me,” sat me in a room of suits and ties, and announced that I was now the creative director for all of our stores in North America, in charge of everyone I worked with, and that I had a very small budget to get in done. Meeting adjourned.

I was petrified. I worked long hours, pissed many people off, and made many mistakes over the next six months. During that time, the VP said nothing to me. I asked him how I was doing and he’d look up only long enough to say, “You still have a job don’t ya’?” As the dust settled in the next few months, everything slowly fell into place. Employee morale improved, work was ahead of schedule, and my annual budget increased thanks to the success of my team’s hard work.

As I walked past the VP’s office one afternoon, he stopped me, looked me square in the eye and said, “I knew you were the right person for the job.” My retort was quick: “It would have been a lot quicker if you would have given me some guidance.” His reply was equally quick: “I didn’t want you to rely on me for your own success. Everyone has the opportunity to be successful; it’s a choice. Success is making the uncomfortable comfortable … a trial by fire. I had to see if you would sink or swim.”

His point was simple, but powerful. He didn’t want a clone. He wanted an independent thinker who could add value and perspective, as well as new ideas. He made me swim for my life. When I started, I could barely tread water. By the end, I could swim the English Channel.

Commit to continuous improvement.

Empowerment is about improvement in the face of challenge. Not just as an organization, or even a department. Set this expectation for every member of your team. At the end of 2013, our CEO challenged each of us at Forma to select an area of expertise and grow into it. He empowered us by hosting accountability training with the authors of The Oz Principle. He expects us to participate in webinars by ReCourses’ David Baker, Win Without Pitching’s Blair Ennis and others to become a thought leader and a more marketable professional.

Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg recently told Entrepreneur magazine “I would only hire someone to work for me if I would work for them.” Few professionals want to be spoon-fed order-takers who are held back or down professionally. They want to feel empowered.

So. Would you want to work for you?