Empowering employees: Can you achieve more by saying less?







Empowering employees: Can you achieve more by saying less?

By David Leibl

When Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors, she famously cut the company’s 10-page dress code down to just two words:

Dress appropriately.

Shrinking the dress code wasn’t only an exercise in concise communication. Giving employees the latitude to determine what it meant to “dress appropriately” sent a powerful message about Barra’s vision for the company’s internal culture.

The subtext of GM’s policy change - what was signalled but wasn’t said - was clear:

  • We trust our employees to make good decisions.
  • We encourage and expect our employees to take ownership over their role.
  • We trust managers to help their teams find the right way forward - even when no formal rule or policy exists.
  • We know that if employees or supervisors can’t figure out the appropriate course of action, they’ll ask. 

There’s a perplexing irony in that many of the organizations looking to build an ownership culture/performance culture/entrepreneurial culture (which is every organization these days) also continue to blanket employees with lengthy, highly prescriptive workplace policies that are the antithesis of self-governance, ownership or personal responsibility.

In fairness, changing longstanding corporate policies is seldom easy or quick. This is especially true in larger organizations where legacy policies have often been developed, refined and expanded over many years, and which are often subject to a formal approval process before they can be changed.  

It’s also true that not every policy can be reduced to a handful of words (GM’s employee code of conduct, for example, while remarkably clear and well-written, isn’t two words; it’s 47 pages.) And, for good reason, many companies’ policies on issues like workplace harassment or information security have become even more specific and defined.

Still, most organizations continue to have the opportunity that GM had: an opportunity to deliberately and conspicuously redraft policies to show that the employer is walking the walk when it comes to empowering employees to deliver their best.

For busy HR leaders and internal communications teams, the starting point can be fairly simple:

  • Identify a workplace policy to change, preferably one that governs some day-to-day aspect of employee behaviour such as social media use, coffee breaks or employee dress;
  • Condense the policy to shift the onus to employees to determine the appropriate behaviour;
  • Deploy appropriate internal communications around the change so employees know exactly why the change is taking place and how it aligns with the desired internal culture.

As with all effective communication, less can often be more. A significantly shortened employee policy can convey a tremendously effective and impactful message.

Sometimes imparting a bold new vision only takes two words.


David Leibl is principal of Guidepost Strategies. 



David Leibl