It's (not) your call

What a granola bar taught me about empowering employees

3 leadership lessons in delegation and engaging workers
What a granola bar taught me about empowering employees
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I deputized Pete with one incredibly vital task: to pick up some snacks from Target for the office. It was essentially my attempt to get this chore off my plate. I delegated what I thought was a simple task to a competent employee.

Without giving it a second thought, I proceeded to my next meeting. And then I get a call halfway through that meeting. I pick up the phone and hear Pete ask, “Do you want me to get the KIND bars or the cheaper stuff?”

I was surprised. He was vastly overestimating how much I cared about granola and underestimating how much trust I had in him to make his own decision. Just buy granola bars, Pete—you can regale me with the tale when you get back. They’re just free snacks for the office, Pete.

The $2 price difference between the top and bottom shelf granola will not set off any alarms in our accounting department. But the last thing I want you to do is to call me to decide for you. When it gets to that point, I’m the one who’s clearly made a mistake.

Leaders face these struggles when delegating tasks, especially in early-stage growth companies that are starting to scale and need to begin redistributing responsibilities in a growing team. Pete’s granola bar call also highlights the importance of closing the communications gap between employees and management so that your people can use that information to exercise real agency.

In short, nobody should ever feel so afraid to make a mistake that they can’t just pick out a damn granola bar––but sometimes we do.

That day, Pete inspired me; I realized three core leadership practices I’ve followed ever since.

Accept when your opinion doesn’t matter

As managers, we often don’t grant agency because we feel we’re the only person capable of deciding. Or we’re just so picky that we can’t live with the imperfection of anything a degree below perfect. I get it—but it’s just not true.

As a leader, I often find that I have to stop myself from offering an opinion just for the sake of having an opinion. Why? Because sometimes (many times!) my opinion doesn’t matter.

I remember a project one of my product managers built from the ground up––from 0% to 90% completion––before I saw it. I was asked my opinion, and just when I was about to open my mouth to comment on the color of a button in the app––I stopped myself. Instead, my exact words were: “It’s already passed the important reviews. The client likes it, the product team likes it, and the designer likes it. My opinion doesn’t matter here.”

I didn’t want to risk suggesting changes because speaking up with any level of feedback could’ve derailed what they had already accomplished. Employees hear the boss’s suggestions as orders: “My boss told me to do this,” and “this is how I will make my boss happy.”

Focus on your values to drive culture

Culture is the most powerful force you’ll foster in business. If you don’t purposefully craft a company culture, one will form in the void (a toxic culture spreads far and fast). I’m sure you’ve worked in a job before where everything was fine until just a little toxicity snuck in and spread like cancer throughout the organization. It’s not long before a happy workplace is spoiled by people being shitty to each other.

Look at Amazon’s leadership principles—even though Jeff Bezos is no longer steering the ship, his leadership is still woven into the fabric of how the company operates. Leadership requires setting a clear set of ethics and standards to build a matrix of decision-making that can be followed anywhere on the corporate ladder.

You must define and reiterate the company values in everything you touch. For example, Tony Hsieh built Zappos from the ground up with a customer-centric culture that led to some amazing stories online about its reps going above and beyond to brighten their customers’ days. This happens because Zappos employees feel empowered to make independent, out-of-the-box decisions instead of parroting the scripts I could train a robot to follow.

Values make us human, and the more comfortable your employees are living the company values you set, the more agency they’ll have to act upon them. Many of our actions and decisions in business are irreversible and can have long-term impacts on people’s lives; those decisions must be backed with values.

Give employees ownership

Poor leadership leads to learned helplessness. Micromanaging people and depriving them of freedom is what leads to situations like, well, when America declared its independence from an unjust ruler. Only this time, you’d be King George. Countless examples in history and current events prove just how much people hate being micromanaged.

I don’t need to micromanage my business to the point where I’m dictating what flavor and brand of granola bar you buy. I certainly didn’t realize I was giving my employees the impression that I’m the kind of boss that would throw you and your off-brand granola bars out the door if you made a mistake.

If you give people agency and the information they need to employ it, you empower them to make their own decisions. Your employees are grown adults with the power and capability to accomplish amazing things when given free reign to act within the company’s rules.

An important correlation between employee empowerment and job satisfaction is something to remember during the Great Resignation. Although higher pay is the number one reason workers say they’d leave a job, more flexible work arrangements are also at the top. The best leadership practices involve learning to trust your employees and delegate work.

And if you ever want a quick litmus test to see just how much agency your employees have, send them to the store for a granola bar.

Chris Cardinal is a founding principal of Synapse Studios, a product and software consultancy that solves complex challenges and helps power businesses forward with tech.