Building Higher Trust 81 The Power of Trust

July 22, 2022

The power of trust cannot be overstated. It has a huge impact as you experience the transitions of your life. Most human beings go through a kind of ritual when confronting death or other profound change.

What matters most at the end of life?

You look at your life and try to make some sense of your precious short duration in the physical world. If you can identify several relationships of trust and love with the people in your life, you will close your eyes and take your last breath in peace.

If you have squandered the opportunities to create the spirit of trust with people, you will probably die a lonely and bitter soul. It is for you to decide how you experience those final few seconds of your existence.

Possessions aren’t very important

The pile of clutter you have generated during your years of existence will not matter much at that point. As you pass from the physical to the spiritual world, the quality of your life will boil down to the relationships of trust and love you have nurtured.

You have a choice to make every day. I advocate you invest in the relationships and be worthy of the trust of others.  I suggest that the best way to experience the power of trust is to extend it to others.

Interesting insights

I conducted an interview with Stephen M.R. Covey as he was writing his latest book, Trust and Inspire.  He indicated three observations about trust that apply to us all:

  1. Trust is the new currency in our world.
  2. Credibility is your greatest asset.
  3. Your greatest power is to intentionally extend trust to others.

How trust is created

Trust is the lubricant that allows relationships to grow and be effective. It is created by having a safe environment where people can express themselves without fear.

Vow today to invest in the relationships you have and can create with other people. Put a high premium on this commodity called trust. The more you invest in the things that build trust, the richer your life will be. The more trust you can extend to others the more you will experience it in your own life.

Never, never, never intentionally destroy trust

I have decided to dedicate the rest of my life to helping others. I will educate people on the merits of trust in their lives and how to obtain more of it. You decide for yourself how to live your life. I hope you realize the impact that more trust will have on the quality of your life.  The more trust you have and can give to others, the more satisfaction and peace you will experience.


Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.  He is the author of The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind.  Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. 


Building Higher Trust 30 The Power of Trust

July 16, 2021

Children look at life as seemingly never-ending. As we get older, the realities of mortality become more evident to us. Eventually we all leave the physical world to become part of the spiritual world. In our final few moments of life, the thing that will matter most is the relationships of love and trust we have experienced in our lifetime.

Material goods will not mean much at that time, but the way we have impacted other people will be great comfort in our final moments.

Our personal lives are all about relationships, but what about our professional lives?

In organizations, if there is low trust, you will find apathy and poor performance. Conversely, if leaders have managed to foster a culture of high trust, you will find engagement and enthusiasm. Trust becomes the lubricant that allows everything to work as we hope. Relationships matter just as much in our professional life as they do in our personal life.

Since we have the power to foster higher trust by being authentic and making it safe for others, we have our destiny in our own hands as long as we pay attention to this critical element in our lives. It is happening in our brains every second of every day. 

One of my favorite quotes is “The amount of success and happiness you will achieve in life is a direct function of what is going on between your ears.”  Since we ultimately have the power to control our thoughts, we have the power to achieve a happy and productive life.

It is up to each of us to conduct our lives to optimize the level of trust we can generate with other people. That is the most powerful way of  creating a life well lived.

Bonus video

Here is a brief video on The Power of Trust


Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.  He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 1000 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations

Body Language 65 Fist Bump

January 31, 2020

Did you ever go to shake the hand of another person and get a gesture back that the other person would rather do a “fist bump”?

I am doing a lot of that this week, because I have a bad cold and don’t want to spread more germs than I have to.

According to Wikipedia, the “fist bump” or “pound” can be traced to boxers instructed to touch gloves at the start of a contest. The modern gesture may have arisen spontaneously on city basketball courts and was popularized by basketball player Fred Carter in the 1970s.

Barack Obama

Back in the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama launched a media storm when he nonchalantly fist bumped his wife Michelle. “Obama’s Fist-bump Rocks The Nation!:” The Huffington Post exclaimed. “Is the fist bump the new high-five?” NPR’s Laura Silverman asked.

The fist bump gesture is useful in many circumstances not related to the health of one or both of the people who are meeting. It is intended to be a friendly greeting or celebration move. Let’s take a look at the rules of engagement and some precautions for fist bumping.

Relative power

One reason the fist bump is a helpful gesture is that when done correctly there is equal participation and transfer of power between the two people. A hand shake is subject to all kinds of subtle interpretations based on which person has the hand on top, how much pressure is used, how long the hand shake lasts, and a few other considerations. I have written about handshake protocol in another article titled Strange Handshake.

The fist bump is quick, equal, and not easy to manipulate. It is intended to be a tap for both people rather than a major forward thrust.


The fist bump is almost always done with the knuckles on top and the fingers curled under below the palm. Both parties make the same movement at the same time. A sideways fist bump, with the thumb on top, while sometimes seen, might easily be interpreted as a hostile gesture, so avoid doing that move.

Having the knuckles on the bottom and the curled fingers on top would look much more like a gut punch, so that should be avoided if you are interested in conveying the usual meaning of a fist bump, which is “you and I are buddies.”

Transfer of bacteria

According to one study, the fist bump transfers only about 10% of the amount of bacteria as an average handshake. The reason is that far less surface area of each person comes in contact when doing a fist bump. The fist bump is also much faster in terms of contact time than a handshake. So from a standpoint of better hygiene, the fist bump is significantly better than a handshake.

Awkward moment

The awkward moment with a fist bump is when one person extends his or her hand to shake hands and the mirror image is not an extended hand but a fist. In this case, it is wise to join the fist bump gesture rather than hold out for a full handshake. The person extending the fist has a specific reason for doing that, and you need to honor that reason, whatever it is.

The fist bump will likely never completely replace the handshake, but it is gaining in popularity each year. It is best to get used to the gesture and roll with it rather than fight the trend.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”

Leadership Barometer 25 Drive Out Fear

November 18, 2019

Number eight of Deming’s Famous 14 Points was “Drive Out Fear.” In just three words, the long-deceased quality genius put his finger on the most important concept in building and maintaining trust.

I have a favorite quote that I use on my website: “The absence of fear is the incubator of trust.” It seems a little backward to describe the lack of something to be the cause of something else, but I really do believe that is the case. When there is low fear in a culture, trust will grow spontaneously, like the mold on last week’s bread, only in this case the mold is good.

If we turn the logic around, there are a number of positive leader behaviors that do cause trust to grow.  If you think about it, these behaviors are easy to name.  Consider the following (incomplete) list:

  1. Do what you say (walk your talk)
  2. Act in a consistent manner
  3. Treat people with respect
  4. Honor your commitments
  5. Be honest
  6. Be transparent
  7. Admit mistakes

We know all these things, and we could list hundreds of behaviors that contribute to building trust on a daily basis. They all work, and yet the power of each one is significantly blunted if the general environment is one of fear.

If you are a leader, of course you need to model the seven behaviors above, along with the others I did not name, but doing that alone will not get you to the promised land.

You need to create a culture of low fear, and you will see the impact of the other behaviors is like they are all on steroids. So the question becomes, how does a leader create a culture of low fear?  The answer is simple, but most leaders have a difficult time doing it, which is the reason trust is so low in most organizations.

You lower fear when you make people glad when they bring up a contrary opinion to what you thought was right. Of course, people need to bring up the disconnect in a respectful manner as opposed to an obnoxious way.  When you make people glad they brought up their concern and reward them for doing that rather than punishing them, it lowers fear within your group.

You make it safe for people to tell you things that you perhaps did not want to hear. I call the behavior “reinforcing candor,” and I believe leaders who have the ability to exhibit this behavior consistently will build the highest trust organizations.

Since high trust is linked to outstanding performance, morale, and low turnover, the benefits of learning how to reinforce candor are immense. This set of behaviors become the super sauce of excellent leadership.  Learn how to reinforce candor; for sure you will become an elite leader.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.

Body Language 28 Hand and Arm Movements

May 18, 2019

Numerous arm movements are part of the body language lexicon.

Actually, hand and arm movements turn out to be one of the more cultural-specific areas of body language.

For example, consider people who live in the Northern Mediterranean areas of Italy and Greece. These people are well known for broad hand and arm movements to illustrate what is being said.

The stereotypical talking with the hands is easy to spot and is actually true in many cases.

Contrast those broad and active gestures with those of people from Eastern Europe, where hand gestures are normally smaller and more confined to the area in front of the sternum, or Scandinavian folks who rarely gesture at all.

It is important to consider the home culture when trying to gain insight by the type of hand and arm gestures you see.

It is easy to misinterpret hand and arm gestures, and it can lead to rather serious problems.

We see evidence of miscommunication in families, in organizations, and especially in government, where people are frequently working in the international areas.

To avoid serious consequences, it is important to be educated on the norms of the culture in which you are currently working.

Hand Gestures

Beyond culture, there are numerous gestures that are very well known and usually similar in different areas of the world. Just for fun, make the hand signals for the following concepts.

• Only a little bit (index finger and thumb slightly apart)
• Great job (thumbs up)
• I completely disapprove (thumbs down)
• I am nervous (pretend to bite finger nails)
• Go faster (two fingers extended and hand revolving around at wrist)
• Stop (hand upright with palm facing the other person)
• This stinks (finger and thumb pinching nose)
• Time out (tips of fingers on one hand to palm of other hand)
• Call me (pinky and thumb extended with pinky at mouth and thumb at ear)
• Text me (finger pecking at empty palm)

We know that by learning to sign, one can convey any concept using hand gestures. I find it fascinating to watch professional signers as they are able to keep up with a presentation in real time. It must be exhausting. I watch the signers in some of my classes when there are deaf students in the class. They are amazing.

Arm Gestures

When you add the arms to hand gestures it becomes much more complex to interpret. Several gestures with the arm are pretty much universal. For example, see if you can make an arm gesture that can contain the following meanings:

• I’m cold (clenching arms across the chest)
• This is going to be huge (arms spread wide apart)
• Just go away (hands in front of chest with fingers down then flicked up)
• Close the door (arm movement showing person closing a door)
• Keep the noise down (Palms down and arms showing a downward movement)
• I will drive you there (pretend to be moving a steering wheel)
• We won! (arms straight up overhead like the touchdown sign of a referee)

There are several broad categories of arm gestures with many sub meanings underneath them. The most frequent gesture with arms is folded arms.

Folded Arms

The most common meaning for someone folding arms is to signal a defensive posture or a closed mind. You need to look closer to detect some of the sub gestures. You might be restraining yourself from bashing someone. If the person is grabbing the upper arms tightly, it usually implies agitation. If the fingers are tucked into the arm pits, it may be a sign that the person is feeling cold.

Studies have shown that crossing arms leads to lower retention of information and less positive impression of the person who is talking. An interesting way to get someone with crossed arms to open up is to hand the person something, like a book or a card. This action will soften the gesture and often a more cooperative spirit can be achieved.

Flapping Arms

The gesture of mimicking a bird in flight is very rare, but the meaning is pretty clear when it is. The person wants to get out or wants you to get out. The implication is, “Why don’t you fly on out of here?”

The Muscle Pose

Holding the arms up at a 90 degree angle with clenched fists is a sign of superiority and power. It is most often shown by men to indicate that “I am stronger than you.”

Be on the lookout for arm and hand gestures as you observe other people, and don’t forget to note the signals you are sending with your own hands and arms.

In the business world the arm and hand gestures can tip you off about the mental state of another person, but only if you are alert to the meaning and can properly decode the message by observing clusters of signals.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.TheTrust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Successful Supervisor 45 – Negotiating for Success

September 24, 2017

Supervisors do a lot more negotiating than they may realize. My observation is that supervisors negotiate all day every day.

If you want to be a more effective supervisor, study up on your negotiating skills.

For most supervisors, negotiations usually involve resources. Obtaining the right level of staffing or a specific piece of test equipment would be typical negotiation discussions.

Also, the budgeting process is always a time of great challenge for most supervisors.

In the day-to-day activities of the operation, getting people to do the right thing at the right time is a form of negotiation challenge. If the standard break time is 15 minutes, how are you going to get people to adhere to the rule?

This article highlights some tips I have learned over the years in courses and in practical applied leadership in a large organization. Before sharing some tips, let me dispel a myth; negotiating is not a win or lose situation.

Great negotiators realize that to reach an agreement, both parties need to believe the deal in question is better for them than no deal at all. Both parties must “win” to have a successful outcome, although both individuals may not get everything they wanted.

Basic Negotiation Principles

The objective of any negotiation is to reach a fair deal that is not abusive to either party, and it is accomplished by a process of discovery and revelation.

Let’s first look at a few basic principles and then describe some of the more popular negotiation tactics and their countermeasures.

1. You have more power than you think you have

Human beings have a habit of undervaluing their hand and overvaluing the hand of their opponent. Information is power in any negotiation, so seek to understand as much as possible the forces that are putting pressure on your opponent.

Withhold some of the critical points about your own situation so the other person is not aware of your constraints.

For example, if you share a time constraint that you need an agreement by the end of the day, your opponent can use that pressure to make you compromise just before quitting time.

Know as much about your opponent’s constraints as you can; and be judicious with sharing things that are impacting you.

2. Plan your strategy

In any negotiation, if you have a plan you will do better than if you play defense and simply react to the offers made by the other party.

It is amazing how many supervisors will go into a negotiation and simply “wing it” to see what the other person is proposing before formulating an offense.

There is going to be some give and take going on in any deal. Be flexible to move off an original plan if conditions warrant it, but at least have a null hypothesis or case to beat before going in.

3. Leave room for the other person to win

We all know that if we want to sell a car ultimately for $1000, it is best to price it at something like $1300 at the outset. This allows the seller to make some concessions and still arrive at an acceptable end point.

Recognize that both parties will be playing the same game on opposite sides, so test the validity of any offers along the way. Do not take at face value any statement made by the other person. Assume there is a lot more latitude available than the other person is willing to share initially.

4. Identify your “walk away” position and be prepared to use it

Your opponent will seek to maneuver you into a position that may be untenable. Identify beforehand what you are not willing to settle for, and do not budge off that position. The walk away technique is often very effective at gaining a concession.

5. Look for win-win and compromise ideas

Always ask, “What else will do the job here?” This technique is particularly useful when you seem to have reached an impasse.

Simply step back and look at the roadblock from a higher perspective.Often there can be a better solution that has not even been considered.

For example, suppose the supervisor is negotiating with another supervisor trying to transfer a key resource into her crew. The other supervisor is intransigent and the discussion gets heated. The supervisor might break the impasse by volunteering to take on some difficult tasks from her opponent.

Negotiating Tactics

Now let’s take a look at some typical negotiating tactics that people use. View these ideas as both offensive strategies but also be aware that they may be used against you and pay attention to the countermeasures, if you need them.

1. Use of time

Time is the ultimate scarce resource, and smart negotiators use it to gain advantage in a negotiation.

For example, if the supervisor is not having much luck selling her yearly budget to her manager, she might schedule a meeting with the manager to discuss the details.

When she arrives, she could mention that she has set aside three hours to go over the details of the budget for full understanding. This would normally put time pressure on the manager, or he could turn it around to put time pressure on her.

A good countermeasure for time pressure is to reverse the logic. In this case the manager might say to the supervisor, “Oh this is too important to limit the discussion to just three hours; I am prepared to work with you all day, if necessary.”

2. Good guy/Bad guy

This tactic is a version of the good cop/bad cop technique when interrogating a suspect. The bad cop is nasty and aggressive when interviewing the suspect, but the good cop comes in and is much more reasonable and often gains a confession.

Whenever you are dealing with more than one person, be aware of the tendency to use this technique to gain leverage.

The antidote to this tactic is to call the people on it directly. Say something like, “You guys seem to be playing good cop/ bad cop, and that doesn’t work at all with me.”

3. The Bogy

A bogy is a statement that we simply do not have the resources to give, so the point is moot. Suppose a supervisor is approached by a manager who insists that she loan the services of a mechanic for the remainder of the shift.

She could use the bogy and say, “But I only have one mechanic on duty today, and loaning her to you would leave me with no way to fix my equipment.” The implication is that I would like to help you, but the well is dry.

The most common bogy in any organization is the budget. Suppose the supervisor needs a new optical comparator for her inspection operation. She goes to her boss with her request and he says, “I would love to help you, but that is simply not in the budget.”

The countermeasure to a bogy is to point out the reality of a false constraint. The supervisor might say, “I know it is not in the current budget, but we need the comparator to do our job. Besides the budget is just an initial guess we made out at the start of the year. Surely we can move some items around in the budget when we need to, or maybe we have to overrun our budget this year and factor that in next year.”

4. Use of silence

Silence is an effective tactic in any negotiation. In western society, people become very nervous when the other party just stops talking.

We tolerate silence for about 30 seconds and then simply have to fill the void with some words, often they are concessions. If you are at loggerheads with another person, just stop talking and watch the person squirm.

The countermeasure to the silent treatment is to refuse to break the silence. After a while the stress will shift onto the other person.

I used this measure when negotiating with a Japanese businessman, and it worked like a charm. It was his turn to counter offer, but he just stopped talking.

Because I know the tactic, I just sat and looked at him, since it was his turn to speak. At first he thought he had me on the ropes, but after 2-3 minutes of silence, he realized I had out-silenced him and he made the concession.

Try this little trick with a car dealer sometime. It’s a riot, and it really works. Very few people can make it beyond one minute of silence.

5. Breaking an impasse

You will occasionally reach an impasse situation where it seems there are no further options. When this happens, simply change the time shape of money.

We are used to the logic in everyday life but often forget the tactic at work. You say “I cannot afford $10,000 for that car.” I ask if you can afford $5,000 and you agree to that figure. So I counter with “OK let’s do $5,000 now and $1,000 a month for 5 months.”

These are some of the more common negotiation tactics and the countermeasures. Make sure you are alert to when others are trying to use these on you and do hone your skill at using them effectively yourself.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Top Leader’s Role in Building Trust

November 9, 2013

CEO croppedI have never met a CEO, or other top executive, who does not desire higher trust within his or her organization. Perhaps there is one out there, but I have never found that person.

The enigma is that while the quest for higher trust is nearly universal, often the senior leader does not recognize that the power to accomplish it is within herself.

I have written about this phenomenon several times, as I believe that once we can accomplish wider recognition of the role of the senior leader in creating higher trust, we will have “cracked the code” that will enable the attainment in a significantly higher percentage of cases.

In my consulting work, I am often called in by senior executives (CEO, COO, or VPHR) to help them improve trust within the organization.

The conversation usually starts out with some form of description of a dysfunctional organization at the shop floor level or with the sales force or customer service, etc.. Often the lower level managers and supervisors are singled out as the culprits, and the top officers are asking me to come in and “fix them.”

This is a dilemma for me because if I say something like, “Have you considered what your contribution is to the problem?” I find myself out in the street on my butt.

If I do take the challenge to go in and “fix” the lower ranks, it is inevitable that these lower managers will tell me the main source of the problem is the senior leaders. I want to offer some ideas on the cause of this disconnect, because I believe it contains the seeds of a cure.

The CEO is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in an organization, but there is often great frustration because, while the top leader has set out a vision and tries to communicate it often, the rank and file keep accusing him of not communicating well.

Several studies have revealed that employees most often state “lack of communication” as either the number one or number two reason for employee dissatisfaction (Wiedmer, 2009).

This is extremely frustrating to many top leaders, because they are sincerely working hard to communicate every day. Given a choice between their own inadequate “mouth,” and the employees’ defective “ears,” most leaders would rather focus blame on the employees.

In most cases, the root cause of the frustration is neither defective outgoing communication nor listening prowess. It is a lack of trust. There is a cultural schism between organizational levels that is based more on fear than on lack of communication. Workers do not often verbalize the fear because, well, they are afraid. So the issues get reported as communication problems.

Top leaders are frustrated because they understand their own objectives clearly and are fully justified in their own mind for every action they take. Reason: it is next to impossible for a sane person to take an action different from what he or she believes is the best one at the moment.

If there was a better choice, that would be the one selected. So the CEO is doing the “right” thing in all cases in his or her own opinion.

If people interpret the CEOs actions as inconsistent with the values, then they must be wrong. Here is where we crack the code. It is the inability of leaders to make workers feel good when they verbalize the inconsistencies that blocks the building of trust.

If top leaders can understand that last point, things can change rather quickly, and higher trust can be developed in nearly every organization. The top leaders really do hold the key, yet they often do not recognize it. In the song “Already Gone,” The Eagles had a great lyric that applies here:

“Well I know it wasn’t you who held me down
Heaven knows it wasn’t you who set me free
So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key”

Cracking the code for the development of higher trust in any organization means enlightening the leaders that they hold the key. It is as simple and as profound as that. Let me clarify what that key is again and associate it with a phrase: “reinforcing candor.”

The key is for leaders to make people feel glad when they bring up what appear to be inconsistencies. People may think an accounting practice is too near the ethical edge, they may think that a decision is not consistent with stated values, or they may believe a leader is shading the truth to get out of a tight spot.

These are just a few examples of the countless apparent inconsistencies people see happening every day at the senior levels yet are afraid to voice.

Top leaders need to reinforce employees when they have the courage to be candid about what seem to be wrong actions.

By reinforcing candor, leaders enable people to voice their concerns openly and know they will be rewarded, not punished. This practice forms a kind of mirror surface where the leader can actually see himself through the eyes of the people who work for him. What an amazing blessing that is! Imagine actually being able to see yourself the way others do.

Having the mirror to see one’s own actions accurately prevents leaders from getting on a slippery slope that ultimately leads to lower trust.

In most cases unethical or otherwise wrong behavior occurs because of a slow erosion of standards. The top leaders allow a slight timing adjustment in inventory valuation that is perfectly legal and it helps performance look better.

There is nothing wrong with this, except if we can do it this month we can do that plus just a bit more the next month and still feel right about it. Before too many months go by, we have walked ourselves into believing that unethical actions are okay.

That is how Enron and so many other organizations got in trouble.

When people are reinforced for their candor, if you have 100 employees, you have 100 people who will call you if the decisions are not really right. That keeps you from getting on the slippery slope, and trust is built on a consistent basis.

Cracking the code of helping top leaders build higher trust involves getting them to see that they have the key in their hand every day. The key is to foster an environment where people know it is safe to bring up scary stuff and know that will be rewarded rather than punished.

For a great compendium of articles on trust see “Trust Inc.: Strategies for Building Your Company’s Most Valuable Asset,” by Barbara Brooks Kimmel of Trust Across America: Trust Around the World.

Wiedmer, Stacey M. (2009). “An examination of Factors Affecting Employee Satisfaction.” Missouri Western State University

Engagement and Empowerment

November 25, 2012

Engagement and empowerment are two words that get tossed around organizations and OD circles. These words are often confused. I have heard the terms used interchangeably, which is a mistake. The best way to demonstrate the difference between these words is to contrast two scenarios. I will focus on a specific job (customer service representative) for the description, but you can easily extrapolate the concepts to any job once the distinction is clear.

Engaged but not Empowered

Here the customer service person is fully on board with the goals of the organization. She knows her job and wants to help the customer. Unfortunately, she is constrained by numerous rules that tie her hands from fully providing service. For example, she may not be able to issue a refund until the incorrect merchandise has been returned and verified to be in good shape. She may have to get “approval” from a superior to authorize a shipping waiver. There can be numerous administrative hurdles that keep this engaged customer service employee from having the power to execute her job to the satisfaction of her customer. If she is talking to a customer with a faulty chain saw, she might say, “That is a shame you are having a problem with your chain saw. I need you to take the saw in to one of our service centers in your area to verify this is not an operator type of problem before I can have you send it to me and get you a replacement saw.”

Empowered but not Engaged

In this case, the customer service rep has the power to do anything she thinks is useful, but this particular person is not connected well to the business goals. She really does not care if the organization does well; all she wants to do is make the customer feel great. In this case, when a customer complains about his chain saw not working properly, she might say, “Oh I am sorry you have had that problem. Let me send you a full replacement chain saw, and I will also include a carrying case (valued at $60) and some coupons for 6 free chains (valued at $80 total).”

It is obvious that neither of these conditions is the best situation for the employee and the organization. We need to have employees who are fully engaged in the business and fully empowered to accomplish their tasks.

Let us take a look at the impact of these two words on the viability of an organization.


In “Smart Trust,” Stephen M.R. Covey reported on some research showing that in the average company there are only two engaged employees for every one disengaged employee. In this case, much of the inherent power of the individuals is leaking out and not available to the organization. Contrast that situation with world class organizations where there are nine engaged employees for every one disengaged employee. You can see the huge difference, and that difference goes quickly to the bottom line.

Having people engaged in the business means having them truly understand the vision for the organization and fully comprehend their role in making that happen. Beyond understanding, to be fully engaged, a worker needs to be fully committed to accomplishing her role, not just involved in the work. Someone once said that the difference between involvement and commitment is like the difference between eggs and bacon. In the case of the eggs, the chicken was involved; in the case of the bacon, the pig was committed!


Empowerment is more closely related to trust. Employees bring their own internal level of empowerment and confidence in their abilities to do their jobs. Managers can increase empowerment through clear communication and a trust-building management style. Unfortunately, managers can decrease an employee’s empowerment and confidence level through negative communication or too many restrictions.

The extent to which people engage their personal power for the benefit of the organization, and the level of freedom they are given to do things right, will determine the level of empowerment experienced by the organization. In OD circles, we use the term “maximum discretionary effort.” The goal of empowerment activities is to solicit maximum discretionary effort from all people. How can we accomplish that in the real world?

First, it is important to realize that what empowers me is probably somewhat different from what empowers you. For an organization to obtain the highest level of empowerment, there needs to be a matching effort between each individual and the conditions that will create a culture that extracts maximum discretionary effort for that person. It sounds complicated, but it is really a process of knowing the people who work for you.

The secret sauce to create a culture of higher empowerment is trust. As trust increases, people naturally feel more empowered because they are allowed to make decisions based on a firm understanding of the goals, but they can accomplish those goals in their own unique way.

Try to avoid mixing the concepts of empowerment and engagement. They are two very different concepts, although they sound almost the same. Seek to obtain both of them through the liberal application of trusting behaviors, and you will experience the best effort that people have to offer.