Balancing Employee Empowerment

Balancing Employee Empowerment

There was a curious incident concerning employee empowerment this week (at the time of writing) in the Carabao Cup Final between Chelsea Football Club and Manchester City Football Club. The incident in question concerned the Chelsea Manager, Maurizio Sarri, attempting to have his goalkeeper substituted but all didn’t go to plan. The goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, refused to leave the field until the manager backed down and cancelled the substitution.

It raises a few interesting questions. Was the Goalkeeper in the wrong to refuse? Was the Manager right to backdown? Is this a lack of respect for the manager or a lack of authority from the manager? Should the manager have handled it differently? Why did this happen in the first place? But the interesting part for me from comments I read online were in regards to employee empowerment. Some felt that this was a complete lack of respect from the player whilst others felt that he should have a right to refuse if he felt he could play on.

An Employee Empowerment Imbalance

I like the idea of employee empowerment. Putting myself in the shoes of when I was an employee I wanted to do the best I could for the cause we were trying to achieve. I had ideas, opinions and passion. Therefore, I’d have loved to have been backed with empowerment to implement those things. That being said, in my opinion, there is no way on earth that a player or any employee should cross the line when it comes to decisions that they are not employed to make. I like the idea of employee empowerment as I say, but for an operation to function there has to be rules and standards that are understood.

In Chelsea’s instance it is the manager who is paid to make those decisions, not a goalkeeper. I can understand him not liking it as it’s an emotionally charged cup final, but it’s not his place to decline. It is not something that should be open for negotiation in any way.

Employee Empowerment in Modern Business

The issue I have is that some modern businesses view employee empowerment as where employees are openly allowed and even encouraged to challenge their managers on decisions as the way forward. Again, I like the forward thinking notion, but pragmatically speaking it’s a dangerous game to play.

I like to think the best of people, but I also understand people. Some people will respect the boundaries, and some will push their luck. You can’t set a liberal rule like that and have everyone follow it respectfully. It just doesn’t work that way as some people will try it on. For me in any business for it to be successful the one thing that it cannot compromise on is its standards. And who should enforce those standards? Management. That’s what they are paid to do. If they’re challenged when trying to enforce basic standards you will have problems.

Enforcement Vs Autocratic

One problem with the word Enforcement is that it has a very strong and aggressive connotation. But really it just means ensuring that rules are followed. Being autocratic is more dictatorial and that often means setting unfair rules.

For me, fair rules are those that everyone including the leadership abide by. As a rule of thumb, I would never want to set a rule that I wouldn’t follow myself. Therefore, you are not asking people to do something that you yourself wouldn’t do. That is fair.

Unfair rules are where it’s one rule for you and another for me. And this is where I can understand the disgruntlement of people calling for more employee empowerment. I have witnessed it on occasion in my career where a superior is willing to discipline me for not following a rule but would brazenly ignore that same rule when it suited them. That is completely unwarranted, and I’d lose all respect and trust in them at that moment.

Balanced Leadership

A good balance of leadership is where employees feel comfortable with their manager. They see their manager as approachable, trustworthy, genuine and honest. But on the flip side they understand that there are rules and that their manager will deliver justifiable consequences if those rules are not followed. That for me is a good balance.

How does imbalance happen

An imbalance will occur as a result of a fault by the employee, manager or that managers boss. Notice that I’ve include the Managers boss as a possible cause of an imbalance. I’ll explain why shortly, but first let’s look at how an employee could cause an imbalance in the empowerment scale.


If the Employee is someone that flouts the rules and constantly pushes their luck this can cause a problem. This for me is just as bad as a manager not abiding by their own rules. Can you recall an employee in your current or a previous place of work constantly causing issues whilst you and others followed the rules? You’d probably be annoyed at either or perhaps both the employee for not following the same rules as you, but also the manager for not getting things under control.


If the manager is weak and won’t deal with the situation good employees can lose respect for them. Or if it is the manager themselves flouting the rules, but oppressing others who don’t follow them this is just as bad.

The Managers Boss

Here’s the one that people don’t think of. If the Manager is asked to enforce rules, but their own boss undermines their authority, flouts those same rules and does these under the gaze of the managers employees, it causes that manager no end of issues. If you’re a manager and you’ve been in this spot it makes you feel about half a foot tall. You’re trying to do the right thing, but the very people who should be backing you up are undermining you causing your staff to lose respect for you and then are holding you accountable for the fallout. It’s not a fun situation to be in. And you don’t find this one spoken about in too many leadership books, put it that way.

The Role of Each Individual in Order to Create an Effective Balance

It starts from the leadership. The managers boss should follow the rule of “If you’re going to set a rule for others to follow, don’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself”. Immediately it’s a justifiable rule. It’s fair. The Managers boss then holds the manager accountable for following the same rule and the same example. The employees then understand that this is how it’s done, it’s fair as the various bosses they see all follow and respect that rule themselves.

But rules should be kept to what is reasonable. There shouldn’t be too many and they should be for want a of a better phrase, common sense. Employees should be given the opportunity to share ideas, earn their stripes and understand that they are valued and are free to make contributions. Before you know it, those rules aren’t even seen as rules, but simply a mark of respect. The managers respecting that they need to set the right example. And the employees understanding that they are only being asked to follow the same rules as management. Fair enough.


Once this can be established the real work and achievements can be made. All the cogs in the company wheel can begin working together in sync.

Employee Empowerment is great, but too much employee empowerment and too much management autocracy are bad things. The balance needs to be set, understood and followed by all before things can really be achieved.

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