Do You Empower Your Team to Make Decisions?
by Kim Richardson
Empowerment is about so much more than trusting someone to follow clearly defined rules; you must learn to trust your team’s judgement.
Yes, even when things don’t go according to plan. If you’re only training your team on the “rules,” you’re doing a disservice to them and yourself. So, let’s have a little chat about empowerment. What does it mean to you? What are your expectations of your team when you tell them they are empowered?
Looking back throughout your own work history, have you ever had a job where your boss told you that you were empowered to make decisions, but you didn’t actually know what to do or how to make decisions? Did anyone ever explain “the how” of decision making to you?
Now, look at yourself as a leader. Have you ever had employees that you’ve told are empowered to make decisions, yet they get a manager every time someone needs something out of the ordinary? Are you explaining to your staff “the how” of decision making, along with your expectations?
It’s frustrating to feel like the house might fall down when you’re not in it. That’s no way to operate a business. We all want our staff to be able to make educated decisions when we’re not around. We shouldn’t have to hold their hands and be part of every single decision.
Still, there are times when, left to their own devices, a team member doesn’t make the decision you’d want them to make. This makes owners and leadership team members feel as though they must be at work every second.
So, how do you move away from micromanagement and learn to trust your team’s decision making?
Leverage Teachable Moments
You’ll never be able to give an example of every possible situation that may arise. Therefore, you’ll never be able to train your team on everything that they’ll encounter on any shift.
How do you tell someone how to handle situations when you’re not around? You don’t, and I don’t suggest you even try. Instead, you need to instill a sense of empowerment in your team.
However, “empowerment” is just a word if you’re not educating your team. You need to teach staff how to make good decisions. And how do you even start to do that? Cash in on all the teachable moments that happen throughout the day!
Once upon a time we were all new to this industry. I’m sure you have a few stories of some mistakes you’ve made along the way. I know I certainly do.
Think back to those situations. Did someone explain to you why you made a mistake? More importantly, did they then help you understand what to do next time? Or did they just get mad and make you feel like a failure?
I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing people over the years. There are several people that really put effort into teaching me. The different things they taught me helped me to understand the ins and outs of decision making, even in situations I know very little about.
Example 1: The Restaurant
For my first job ever, I was a hostess at an Italian restaurant and pizzeria. During the training process I was told to rotate sections when seating tables. That’s easy enough, right? Well…maybe not.
Sometimes I’d see exceptions to this rule. The same section would get sat twice in a row, for example. I watched exceptions to “the rule” get made with no clue as to why.
One day, I sat the same section twice in a row. I don’t remember why, but I do remember the server’s reaction.
Right after seating the second party in the server’s section she let me know how annoyed she was by my decision. Now, I knew I messed up immediately—she let me know. But I didn’t know why it wasn’t okay that I had double-sat her this time.
All I knew is there was a rule I was expected to follow…unless I wasn’t supposed to follow it. Sometimes it was okay to disregard the rule, sometimes not. The rule wasn’t clarified before I began my role as a hostess, it wasn’t explained during training, and it wasn’t explained in the moment I “broke” the rule.
At some point it was explained to me that there were several factors that influenced the “double-seating rule.” For instance, you might skip a section in the rotation if they were just sat a big party. You might double-seat someone if they were regulars, family or friends and the server was able to accommodate an additional table. Of course, there were several other factors that could come into play.
The biggest issue is that none of that was explained to me during training. Moreover, I was left to figure out the nuances of seating on my own.
Example 2: The Hotel Sales Office
I worked at a hotel in the sales office for my first job out of college handling group room blocks.
The contracts I sent out to clients had cutoff dates 30 days prior to the event. Again, sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?
One day a bride emailed me asking if she could extend the cutoff date. The cutoff date fell on a holiday weekend and she was concerned that people might not have time to book their rooms. I wrote her back and very politely told her no. So she reached out to my boss, Jill, who told her yes.
And then I got called into Jill’s office.
I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. Jill was very nice about the situation and explained that it was okay to make exceptions for people sometimes. Sometime later, I extended a cutoff date for another group. Should be an acceptable exception, right?
Nope. I got my hand slapped on that one. There was a citywide event going on over those dates. The hotel was fully sold out and turning away business. In this circumstance, it was actually a huge problem to extend the cutoff date.
Great—here we go again with a rule that exists in a gray area, and no one explained its nuances. As it turns out, there are factors that go into extending a cutoff date, such as how many rooms the group has already picked up; how busy the hotel is over the dates of their room block; and the relationship you have with the client.
I don’t know if anyone ever flat out explained these gray areas to me. Instead, I was left to figure out the nuances through trial and error.
Example 3: The Dish Tub Incident
At that same hotel several years later I started handling banquet events. One day, a client told me their registration desk needed dish tubs lined with cloth napkins. I threw it on the banquet event order.
Well, I happened to work at a Five Diamond hotel. Dish tubs with napkins sitting out in view of the public? That’s not how we did things. Enter: Bruce the Banquet Manager.
No detail, however small, escaped Bruce. Referring to the dish tubs and napkins, Bruce asked me why they were necessary. I actually had no idea what the client wanted with the tubs and napkins. So, I reached out to the client.
Turns out all she needed was a way to store welcome packets for event attendees. These days, we just put up a QR code and call it good. Once I let Bruce know what the containers were actually for, he understood. However, we weren’t about to load unsightly dish tubs with welcome packets. Instead, we found something more aesthetically pleasing and in line with our level of service.
I spoke about the Dish Tub Incident with Jill. To her credit, she helped me understand that people who are planning meetings so frequently are sending standard specs. Sometimes there would be a request on a BEO that wouldn’t make sense for the venue. Crucially, she taught me that if I ever saw something that didn’t make sense I needed to ask questions.
Truthfully, I don’t remember if it was that conversation or another but Jill taught me one of the best lessons: Ask the client what goal they’re trying to achieve. By understanding their goals we could provide solutions that made sense for us and honored their wishes. Additionally, we’d deliver the excellent service they had come to expect.
Example 4: The Hotel Cafeteria
Let’s take a little break from talking about my mistakes and talk about somebody else’s.
Many years later, I was working at another hotel. One day, I went to the cafeteria and the fruit bowls had Asian pears in them. I love Asian pears, so I was really excited about those bowls.
Now, those particular pears were probably a day away from being spoiled. I went to the cafeteria the next week and there were the Asian pears again! This time, they were perfectly fresh, crisp pears.
Well, I certainly enjoyed that. You want to know who didn’t enjoy that? The executive chef!
As it turns out, Chef sent the pears that were about to go bad to the cafeteria because they were leftovers from something else. He didn’t want them to go to waste. But the fresh, crisp pears that were out the following week? Those were a different story.
There was a kitchen team member who saw the Asian pears go down the week before. When he was setting up the cafeteria the following week he threw some in the fruit bowl. No one had told him that Asian pears are expensive. Also, no one had told him the pears were just going down to the cafeteria because they were close to spoiling. They’re not typically the type of thing set out in the employee cafeteria.
While I would never expect Chef to stop and explain every single decision he’s making, it’s the perfect example of seeing one of your superiors doing something and thinking you’re supposed to do the same.
When I look back on some of the mistakes I made, they seem pretty obvious with many years of hindsight.
The solutions to unexpected situations are common knowledge to me now. If you also have some years in this industry, they’re likely common knowledge to you.
And that’s my point.
I was young. I was inexperienced. People didn’t always tell me the things they had learned that were common knowledge to them. So, they also didn’t share their expectations with me.
I can only assume that you have people on your team that are young and inexperienced. As seasoned hospitality professionals, we all make decisions every day that can be teaching moments. These moments are part of the learning experience. Using them to shape your team will help your business run better.
Have you implemented an onboarding process? Do you have a detailed employee manual? Do you have actual systems in place? If so, great—you’re ahead of the curve.
But do you think that you’re training new and existing employees on every situation that will ever pop up during their shifts? Really, that’s impossible. Instead, be on the lookout for teachable moments. Put people on your leadership and empower them to do the same.
In turn, they’ll help empower your staff to make the “right” decisions for your business. And importantly, they’ll feel empowered to learn from mistakes so they don’t repeat them. Over time, and it won’t take long, you and your leadership team will be able to step away and work on other parts of the business. In fact, you’ll find that you can step away from the business from time to time.
People are going to make mistakes. That includes you. Don’t let these teachable opportunities go to waste.