Stop Empowering Employees With a False Sense of Control

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Nov 9, 2010

I have a confession to make: When I read about the fact that most “Close Door” buttons on elevators don’t work, I was illogically outraged.

Why would they put a button on an elevator that purposefully didn’t work? If it was specifically for firefighter use, why didn’t they put it by all of the other buttons that are specifically to be used by firefighters (instead of by the very much operable “Open Door” button which is used when you want to be courteous)?

I was so incensed, I tested it out on an elevator close by. Sure enough, when I rushed into the elevator, pressed the floor number, and hit the “Close Door” button a dozen times, it took the same amount of time as if I rushed in the elevator and simply pressed the floor number alone.

What was so aggravating about this?

That button doesn’t work

I thought back to all of the times that I had hit a “Close Door” button in the past.

I’ve used it to get up to my office more quickly or to avoid people I’d rather not share a long elevator ride with in Vegas. As I sat there frustratingly pushing an inoperable button for the better part of my life, a sense of discomfort with the idea of a broken button there to placate me ticked me off. And now, when I see a person hitting that “Close Door” button, I bite my tongue and hope that they’ll read the same article that I did.

Was I really frustrated that I couldn’t control closing the door? After all, there were many things I couldn’t control about an elevator ride. I couldn’t control whether I went more quickly or slower. I couldn’t control whether I skipped floors and went straight to my destination. I couldn’t control the temperature of the elevator. Why does it matter if a “Close Door” button works?

It’s a matter of trust

I was starting to think of other instances when I’ve been falsely empowered with control (even small pieces of control) and I had the same sort of reaction.

For example, I was giving a team of employees small gift cards and the vendor allowed for customization of the message inside. So every time I sent a gift card, I would make sure to include a little personalized note. Several weeks after I had sent a couple of batches of cards, I hadn’t heard anything back from these employees about the funny things (okay, maybe not that funny) I was putting in the cards. When I examined them, it turns out no messages were ever printed on them.

I began to think whether or not this company had dropped the ball in other areas. I lost my trust in their ability to execute correctly. Now if I had never been given the option to personalize, there wouldn’t have been an issue. And in the case of the elevator, was it that they didn’t trust me to use the power of the button correctly? It’s a “Close Door” button, not a big red button to start a nuclear war.

True empowerment isn’t a false choice

Many times, I think people put their employees in these false empowerment scenarios. Their employee is pushing that inoperable button thinking it is doing something and it isn’t. I think about a manager who wanted to be more collaborative about a decision that had already been made. Or an executive who wanted to bring in employees to help make decisions about health care plans we had already chosen.

Empowerment isn’t the only option either. Sometimes employees don’t need to make every little decision. You don’t need to punch in the speed you want the elevator to go at. It just goes at a predetermined speed that most users have no input on.

If we want to empower employees, that’s great. After all, if we eliminated the choice of what floor to go to, elevators would be pretty useless.

But let’s make it true empowerment, not a push on that broken button that might make them feel better. When they wake up and realize that the choice was never their’s to make, you might be looking for another employee.