Empowering employees? Here’s when it might backfire.

If we ask you about the practices through which you empower your people to perform better, you might name some of the following:

  • Delegating authority and decision-making
  • Sharing information about teams/ the organization
  • Asking for their input on key decisions
  • Offering choices for the kind of work they want to do
  • Letting them manage their own time and goals
  • Building a culture of giving and receiving feedback

Research has consistently shown that practices like the above strengthen employees’ commitment towards the organization, improves their job satisfaction, and contributes to their overall performance. Though a favorable result, researchers of organizational behavior set out to test it further.

Researchers Sara Wills, Amy Tian, and Alan Lee, conducted a meta-analysis of available research on leaders empowering employees – examining the results of 105 studies, with data from over 30,000 employees from 30 countries. The focus: impact of an empowering leadership style, on a range of employee behaviors. They found:

  • Empowering leaders are much more effective at influencing behaviors like workplace generosity, appreciation, generation of novel ideas, and helping co-workers.
  • Such leaders are also more likely to be trusted by their subordinates, and as a result, build better relationships, and end up delegating more authority/ decision-making.

Essentially, empowering leaders help create employees who are helpful, creative, confident, and take initiative. But does this leadership style really improve task performance? It actually doesn’t.

Why? Because sometimes, in an attempt to empower team members, managers give them more tasks, or projects that are challenging. Team members feel burdened, and that increases their workplace stress. The response of team members also depends on their belief about their manager/ leader’s capability. If they feel the leader can’t lead, and is hence delegating, then the whole initiative backfires.

There are cultural differences too. In Western cultures, employees expect more autonomy, whereas in Eastern cultures, people prefer a more hands-on leadership style. Notice, that there is an element of employee expectation at play here.

So, what is a good way to gauge how to improve performance through empowerment? By building a trusting relationship where employees feel it’s safe to state their expectations, and offer feedback to you. Trust, after all, is the new leadership currency.

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