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Why School 'Empowerment' Is Tough: United Airlines Edition

We talk a lot about "empowerment" in education. We want educators to be empowered. We want families to be empowered. Everybody is pretty much on board with this. In fact, it's rare that you'll ever hear someone say, "I'm opposed to empowerment! Let's disempower our teachers!!"

So why do schools and school systems have so much trouble making empowerment actually, you know, feel empowering? Maybe it's because we're not thinking very carefully about what it means to make empowerment a reality. Case in point: United Airlines. A few weeks back, as you'll recall, United had itself a passenger-dragging debacle. Most of us watching a passenger get dragged from a commercial airliner probably wondered, "Didn't anybody realize this was a bad idea?" How empowered do you need to be to say, "Uh, guys, maybe this isn't so bright."

Apparently, that's a lot harder than you'd think. In fact, just last week, United caught more grief when an employee's teenaged girls were barred from a flight because another employee thought their leggings violated United's dress code. (Last week, they also had the misfortune of a beloved giant rabbit being found dead immediately after transit. But no need to pile on). On Thursday, the Washington Post ran an exceptionally sensible article on how United is trying to set things right. The company's reforms are intended to ensure that corporate policies are interpreted and applied with common sense. In particular, United says it will "empower employees to address customer service issues in the moment."

As part of this, United will launch an app that will allow employees to directly compensate customers when there's a problem. Gate agents and flight attendants will be able to give passengers credit or miles when appropriate, without having to first get clearance from higher-ups. As one HR honcho said, "In order to empower employees, you need to be willing to give them control. . . You have to put money in their hands where they can actually make decisions."

Ethan Burris, of the University of Texas's School of Business, observed: "This isn't just a matter of empowerment, it's a matter of cultural change. And with a rules-based culture, saying 'empowerment' is very counterculture." He points out that making the shift is not just about training staff in new processes, it also has to be about "unlearn[ing]" old rules, "celebrating" good judgment, and taking care not to punish those who go too far. Absent that stuff, Burris notes that the whole thing will strike employees "like a bunch of hot air."

After all, when employees are giving away money executives are going to worry that flight attendants will wind up giving away big bucks to passengers who learn to game the system. And if employees have grown used to a by-the-book culture, asking them to suddenly get comfortable with improvisation can be a stretch. In fact, if employees don't really trust that management means what it says, they'll fear getting slammed the moment they make a judgment that someone second-guesses.

In too many schools and systems, empowerment tends to feel like an empty phrase. When it comes to schooling, we have a long tradition of site-based management and "empowerment" schemes where most of the old rules still apply, teachers and principals fear being skewered if they make the "wrong" judgment, and nobody gets much credit for figuring out creative ways to solve problems. Empowerment requires a lot more than policies, memos, trainings, and a PR push—it requires people truly feeling free to problem-solve the way they think best. And making that happen in a rule-bound system is a lot harder than it might seem.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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