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When Does “Empowering Workers” Turn Into a Burden?

Research has consistently shown that when employees feel empowered, they have higher job performance, job satisfaction, and commitment to the organization.

Many leaders seek to empower their employees by delegating authority and decision-making, sharing information, and asking for their input. But recent research from the Harvard Business Review suggests that this mode of leadership only works in motivating specific types of performance and particular kinds of employees. “Empowering” leaders should understand those nuances, and where they can be most effective.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) conducted a meta-analysis of all available field experiments on leaders who empower subordinates – analyzing the results of 105 studies, including data from over 30,000 employees from 30 countries. The results were published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. HBR looked at whether an empowering leadership style was connected to improved performance, and examined whether that was true of different types of performance like routine task performance, organizational citizenship behavior, and creativity. They also examine several mechanisms that could explain how this type of leadership might translate into better job performance – for instance, was the impact caused by elevated feelings of empowerment, or by higher trust in one’s leader?

HBR’s analysis showed a few key results: first, leaders that pursue an empowering strategy in the workplace are much more effective at influencing employee creativity and citizenship behavior (i.e., behavior that is not formally recognized or rewarded like helping coworkers or attending work functions that aren’t mandatory) than routine task performance. Second, by empowering their employees, these leaders are also more likely to be trusted by their subordinates, compared to leaders who do not empower their employees. Finally, leaders who empowered employees were more effective at influencing employee performance in Eastern, compared to Western, cultures, and they had a more positive impact on employees who had less experience working in their organizations.

Empowering leaders had more creative and helpful employees.

HBR’s meta-analysis analyzed the effects of leaders rated as more empowering by their subordinates and compared them with those rated as less empowering. Leaders perceived as more empowering delegated authority to their employees more often, asked for their input, and encouraged independent decision-making. Furthermore, they had more employees who were rated by colleagues as highly creative and good organizational citizens. This outcome suggests that this specific mode of leadership promotes the generation of original ideas and new ways of doing things, supporting others in the workplace, volunteering for extra assignments, and a willingness to support their organization outside of an official capacity.

HBR found two psychological processes responsible for these. First, employees with managers who were more empowering were actually more likely to feel empowered at work – they experienced a greater sense of independence and control in their work, their jobs had more meaning to them, and their workplace efforts aligned with their values. Those employees also reported that they felt competent in their abilities and able to make a difference. That sense of empowerment explained the impact of such leaders on both employee creativity and citizenship behavior. Empowered employees are more likely to be powerful, confident individuals, who are committed to meaningful goals and demonstrate initiative and creativity to achieve them.

Second, this group of workers showed higher rates of trusting leaders they perceived as more empowering. They demonstrated greater faith in them and were more likely to make an effort without feeling they’d be exploited. That outcome is not as simple as one might suppose. When leaders seek to empower employees, those workers are being asked to take on additional challenges and responsibility. Employees’ could interpret that as the supervisor’s attempt to avoid doing the work him or herself. But HBR found that when empowering leadership emphasizes mentoring and professional development, it fosters a more trusting relationship.

However, feeling empowered doesn’t always enhance routine task performance.

In some cases, leaders who tried to empower their employees did more harm than good in the end. For example, one study in HBR’s analysis showed that by trying to give employees additional responsibility and challenges, empowering leaders ended up burdening those employees and increasing stress.

Results showed that empowering one’s subordinates really came down to how employees viewed their leader’s behavior. Followers may perceive greater autonomy or shared decision-making as a sign that the leader trusts them and wants to provide opportunities for self‐development; on the other hand, they could see those gestures as evidence that the leader is trying to avoid work or difficult decisions. In the latter example, employees may become frustrated about their role, which can result in lower performance on routine tasks. This underscores the importance of not adding too much pressure or creating uncertainty when empowering your subordinates.

It all seems to boil down to understanding employees’ expectations. Recent research suggests that employees have their own expectations about the extent to which leaders should try to empower them. When the leaders’ empowering approaches don’t mesh with subordinates’ expectations, that employee may regard this behavior negatively.

Empowerment is about supporting employees.

Although Harvard Business Review’s meta-analysis showed some new insights about empowering leaders, in many areas there were relatively few studies available for analysis. For example, longitudinal studies were very rare and thus the researchers were unable to determine causality – their correlations could not confirm whether empowering leadership caused increases in employee performance or whether employees who performed better were more likely to be given additional responsibility and empowered by their leaders. And few studies used objective performance data (such as sales data); but most relied on leader ratings of employees’ performance, which may be biased.

But in sum, the results indicate that empowering leadership motivates workers and ignites their creativity. However, it can create additional burdens and stress that may hurt job performance. This makes it essential for managers to keep in mind that empowering leadership has limits, and factors like trust and experience can shape how behaviors are perceived by a team.

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Emery Reddy