Employee empowerment: The missing window blinds… and 60 tons of explosives

Written by: Karl Sakas

My grandfather was a business professor and management consultant from the 1940s to the 1980s.

As an expert in Organizational Behavior—and a labor arbitrator—one of his specialties was helping companies work more cooperatively with employees. I grew up hearing stories about his working with companies like GE and Nestle and Caterpillar.

I recently came across a lecture he gave to an audience of military leaders in 1953. He shared an employee empowerment story that’s still timely, six decades later:

Two years ago I worked for the New York Central Railroad observing some of its operations. … It was a hot August day. This fellow was sitting in this tower with the sun shining brightly. I said, “What is it you don’t like about your job?” “These d— blinds. See how the sun is boiling in the window?”

[I said,] “Have you asked anyone to get blinds put in? Why don’t you speak to somebody about it?” He pulled out an old envelope and said, “Here are all the people I talked to. They even came out here and measured them. I still haven’t gotten the blinds.

Then he said: “Do you see that car? It has 60 tons of explosives on it. I’ve got the brake clear back to the fourth notch and I can’t stop the car. Every once in a while a car goes off the track and ties up the whole yard.” “What is wrong?” “It is this [emergency] brake. It just doesn’t work.”

“Have you asked anybody to fix it?” “H—, no. Why should I? They didn’t do anything about the blinds. Why should I bother them about the brake?

When your agency’s frontline employees don’t feel empowered to report problems to upper management, it can lead to potentially terrible—yet entirely avoidable—consequences. And there’s no excuse. We’ve known that for 60+ years.

Your agency isn’t handling explosives. But your clients rely on your to grow their business. And empowering your agency’s frontline employees helps produce better results—and, typically, a more profitable agency.

But saying “employees are empowered” isn’t enough. Actions speak louder than words.

Question: What would it take to better empower your agency’s employees?

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

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