In The Trenches

The power of empowerment

Published on April 29, 2019 Back to blog
Airplane Parked at Terminal

If we’re connected on social media, you may know that my family and I recently had a very frustrating travel experience with American Airlines (AA). In short (I could go on quite a bit), it took my family 40 hours to get from Boston to Cabo San Lucas. It took our luggage more than 60 hours to get there. And, American Airlines has refused to accept responsibility or do anything about it. 

While I could use this blog post to berate AA, I thought it would be more useful to consider the situation and see what could be learned from it. 

After days of hearing “I’m sorry, but…” or, in some cases, flat-out lies, from virtually everyone I spoke with at AA, I came to the conclusion that AA’s biggest issue isn’t incompetence (although, they clearly have plenty of it) – it is lack of empowerment. When businesses do not empower their employees to do their job, they put themselves at considerable risk of failure. Thank you to American Airlines for helping to demonstrate this:

  1. Un-empowered employees are often unhappy (and unproductive) employees. How can an employee be happy when they are not empowered to do their job? And when employees are unhappy, it most often shows in their attitude and performance. At some level, you can understand why employees in this situation would even lie to customers (like those at AA who, for example, told us that our luggage would definitely be on our flight, even though it wasn’t). It can be embarrassing and degrading to admit that they are not empowered to truly answer a seemingly simple question.
  2. Un-empowered employees lead to unhappy customers. Aside from having to deal with unhappy employees (see above), un-empowered employees make it impossible for customers to resolve any problems or, in many cases, even get the product/service they paid for. For example, after more than a week of waiting in lines, sending emails, completing online forms and calling customer service (with 2+ hour hold times), it finally took a lengthy email to the CEO and customer service VPs at AA to get a call from someone at the “executive office” – who, you guessed it, said “there’s nothing I can do.” 
  3. Empowerment doesn’t require complete power. Sometimes, empowerment can simply be the power to elevate the situation or provide access to someone who is more empowered. When someone (like one of the many employees we spoke with at AA) says “Sorry, but I can’t do anything, and I’m unable to reach my manager” they are clearly not empowered to do much of anything. Empower employees to the extent needed to perform their responsibilities. At the very least least, empower them with access to other people and resources who can help them – and then continually train and grow them to become even more empowered.
  4. Empowerment builds respect. When an employee feels empowered, they feel trusted by those who grant them the power. And, we all know that trusting lies at the foundation of good and productive relationships. It was not surprising to learn that, in a recent AA employee survey, only 32% of American Airlines employees believe that “management listens to them and wants to understand their feelings.” 
  5. Un-empowered employees waste time and money. If you don’t empower people to perform their job, you are ultimately throwing money out the window. Their involvement in the process is only wasting time for the company and customer. Perhaps, if AA actually empowered people to do their jobs, they would not only have happier employees and customers, but be more efficient (and maybe they’d even pass the savings along to customers instead of refusing to compensate them for the problems they cause.)

I actually believe that most of the people I spoke with at AA were truly sorry and probably even felt badly about lying. But, lack of empowerment is a serious issue that can cause a vicious downward spiral for a business. And from the results of their employee survey and the number of negative comments I received on my social feeds, it is clear that American Airlines is in the middle of such a spiral. 

I hope that my experience, and lessons learned from this experience prove to be valuable to you and your business. (And, I’ll leave it up to you to form your own opinions of American Airlines.)

Jeff Freedman
CEO/Managing Partner
Small Army | Finn Partners