A service organisation launched an empowerment programme. The idea was that if customers had a problem, service agents were free to give out vouchers for savings on future purchases by way of apology.

After three months hardly any of the thousands of vouchers printed had been used. The reason was simple. When you gave out a voucher, you had to fill in a form and send it to head office. Naturally, nobody wanted to give head office the impression that they were continually making mistakes.

The reason for the form was management’s need to be in control. In our experience, when managers attempt to control anything it’s a sign that they are defeated. What underlies management’s need for control is the fear that, given their head, the staff might give away the shop. In practice, customers don’t want the ‘shop’, they just want someone to listen to them and act.

It’s the system that will determine peoples’ scope for action.

Empowerment programmes and empowerment surveys won’t do anything useful.