I miss Sam Kinison.

Kinison was the comic, killed a few years ago by some drunks in a pickup truck, who fell into fits of screaming with the voice of a dull hacksaw attacking an I-beam.

Sam’s spirit occasionally invades my flesh, like the time I heard a consultant compare management to raising children. Sam came to me then, and I felt like Dr. Strangelove fighting his own hand. I wanted to jump up and scream like Sam, “NO IT’S NOT! IT’S NOTHING LIKE RAISING KIDS! I HAVE A SIXTY-YEAR-OLD MOTHER OF FIVE WORKING FOR ME! SHE’S AN ADULT! A GROWN-UP! AHHHH AHHHH AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!”

This all came back to me as I read the megabytes of responses to my column on the 70% solution — the arithmetic that says you’d better create 70% more value than your salary or your employer loses money on you.

I did get two flames (one reader misunderstood the point, agreeing with me after we exchanged messages), but most readers endorsed the point enthusiastically. In fact, I received the ultimate compliment from one, who tacked up my column in his cubicle right next to Dilbert.

And these weren’t only managers wanting a whip to flog the hapless analysts who work for them. As many hapless, and for that matter hapful (there must be such a word, don’t you think?) analysts, and programmers, and other people who have to produce Real Stuff (RS, to use the technical term) for a living, were at least as supportive.

Employees want to succeed. They want to produce real value for their employers. Along the way, they want to enjoy their jobs, but that’s no trouble at all: let them produce real value and they’ll enjoy themselves, because most people naturally want to do exactly that.

Don’t believe me? Next time you have some strange assignment or other, call five people in your organization you’ve never met before, tell them what you’re working on, and say, “I was told you may have some good insights on how to approach this problem. Can you spare an hour to help me get my thoughts together?”

I guarantee you, at least six of the five will offer more help than you have any right to expect. And when you’re done, they’ll thank you. People want to create value for other people — that’s where self-esteem comes from.

The whole idea of empowerment stems from this basic realization about human nature. Very few employees go to work just to get a paycheck. Yes, that’s a part of why they show up, but it’s not the whole taco.

Every survey ever done on this subject reveals the same result: employees rank money between 7th and 10th in what they find most important in their work environment. (There are some qualifications on this statistic … the employees have to be making enough to have some disposable income, for example.)

Want more proof? Listen to what people gripe about. IT’S NEVER THEIR SALARY!

Employees complain about office politics. They complain about too many meetings. They complain about the food in the cafeteria. They complain about the number of meetings they have to attend. They complain about ridiculous procedures and regulations. And of course, they complain about having to go to too many meetings.

Every … every complaint you’re likely to overhear has to do with distractions from producing value.

Want happy, motivated, high-morale, high-performing employees? View every distraction they have as leg irons and hand-cuffs. Get rid of all that stuff.

Most of all, treat employees as adults, not because it makes them more effective, but because that’s what they are. They may work for you. If you’re doing your job, they look to you for leadership. They don’t need you as a parent.

So watch out — if you treat your staff like children, Sam’s going to come back and visit your office.

* * *

I still miss Sam Kinison. And I still like this column, all these years later. My only regret, when re-reading it, is that I missed pointing out that when you treat adults as children they’re likely to start living down to your expectations.

– Bob, 3/7/2016

I never read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (I bought the discounted version: Four Habits of Semi-Effective People). People I respect have good things to say about Covey. While I can no more remember all seven habits than all seven dwarves, all fourteen (habits and dwarves) seemed both useful and unthreatening when I first encountered them.

Covey has another book, Principle Centered Leadership. I don’t go in much for this kind of book, because its central thesis – that adherence to ethical principles is a prerequisite to leadership – seems more the stuff of pamphlets than of treatises. Still, I have no argument with Covey, who promotes old-fashioned virtues in eloquent fashion. Virtues are Good Things (to use the technical term).

I do, however, take issue with the people who heard about Covey and, harking back to Jordy LaForge, thought, “Being ethical can advance my career? You know, it’s crazy enough, it just might work!”

Here’s an opinion: It’s not ethics until it hurts. If you’re not taking a personal risk, not sticking your neck out, then you’re not sticking to your principles. You’re just enjoying a string of good luck.

The sorriest facet of this whole phenomenon is how it turned ethics and principles into management fads. Empowerment, which certainly has an ethical dimension, became a fad as well. The experts told us all to empower employees because of how much more profitable it would make our businesses. Regrettably, accounting systems have no way to determine whether empowerment creates profitability, so the fad has started to wane.

Here’s a different perspective: you have no choice but to empower your employees. They already have the power to wreck your organization, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them.

Employees can respond to requests for help with indifference, inflexibly quote policy in response to service problems, produce the minimum defined in your performance standards, and live down to your carefully crafted job descriptions. So long as they do their jobs as you’ve defined them your employees are safe, until the whole ship of your organization sinks to the bottom.

None of the tools available to managers can stop this kind of empowerment – not procedure manuals, job descriptions, performance reviews, or disciplinary processes. The more you try to keep employees from messing up, the more you make their failure inevitable, until the whole situation becomes completely ridiculous.

Don’t believe me? Look at the Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) and Federal Acquisition Requirement Specifications (FARS). These two sets of documents detail how the government must buy information technology. FIPS and FARS try to make the process idiot-proof. Great theory. The paradox? FIPS and FARS are so detailed and elaborate that to learn them you have to be smart enough to not need them in the first place.

Empowerment is a good-news-bad-news proposition. The bad news: You have no choice about empowering your employees. You can’t prevent their wrecking your things. The good news: you can successfully structure your work environment so employees help your organization thrive.

The better news: it’s a whole lot simpler this way. Specifying goals and principles is much easier than dictating behavior. With few exceptions, employees want to succeed. If you’d only tell them what that means … how you define success … they’ll help you get there. They may not do things the way you’d do them, but that’s okay. Different golf pros have different swings, but they all hit the ball very well (and much better than I do).

Far too often, empowerment became a numbers game. Cost-justified by decreasing the manager/worker ratio, empowerment programs reduced interaction between managers and staff. Mistake. The point is to change how they interact, not to reduce the amount of contact.

At its simplest and most profound level, empowerment is about a change in perspective. Managers who don’t believe in empowering their workforce try to keep employees from failing.

Empowering managers help their employees succeed.