Empowering workers can cause uncertainty and resentment

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Attempts by managers to empower staff by delegating different work to them or asking for their opinions can be detrimental to employee productivity, research shows. On the face of it this finding goes against current conventional wisdom.

What the researchers say: Giving employees more authority can have a negative impact on their day to day performance and perhaps give the impression that their boss is just seeking to avoid doing their own work, according to the study. Managers have increasingly sought to empower workers because they thought it allowed staff to develop their skills and would result in higher job satisfaction. But promoting good relationships between bosses and staff can be a more effective way to make them more efficient, academics have found. However, the researchers also found that empowering creative workers can pay large dividends. The style of empowering leadership developed two decades ago, has become more popular in the past decade as the organizational structures of companies have become flatter. It involves giving employees authority to get on with their work without regular monitoring, asking for their opinions and letting them participate in decision making.

The new research shows empowering workers can be effective when used for employees who have to carry out creative tasks. Then it motivates them to work harder and to help others and helps them be proactive. But if used for staff who only carry out routine, structured tasks, empowering them may be counterproductive. There is a danger that they interpret the style of leadership as just a way of their boss delegating more of their workload to others. The researchers examined information from 105 companies around the world and looked at the performance of 8,500 individual people working in a mixture of industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, sales, and schools. The study also found bosses and employees need to trust each other if empowering leadership is to be effective. Bosses need to show they trust their subordinates and allow them to be creative. Workers need to show they can be trusted to work without being closely supervised.

The lead researcher said: “Using an empowered style of leadership can be detrimental and create uncertainty and even chaos if used for workers who have non-creative tasks. Workers have got to feel that their boss supports them to take risks when empowering leadership is being used. But bosses are also vulnerable when they manage people in this way. People could take advantage of the trust put in them. Trust is a powerful factor in how effective empowering leadership can be. “Being an empowering leader is not just about sitting back and letting people get on with their work. You have to be supportive and willing to listen and ask for opinions. It must be done in a way which builds trust.” The research found workers in Eastern cultures had the same views about empowering leadership, and it had a similar impact on their work. It also found people new to their job respond better to empowering leadership and perform better than their more long-standing colleagues when managed in this way—perhaps because they are less cynical and more open to trying new things. The study was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

So what? Sometimes the question for employers is not: How do I empower employees? but rather: How do I help to make their lives fulfilling? The answer is not in some simplistic catchword like “happiness” or “empowerment” or even “engagement” but rather comes from an understanding of the actual needs that people have. Managers and leaders need to realize that they lead the equivalent of a small hunter-gatherer band—and this is true no matter how many people the enterprises has on its payroll. In such a band each person has his or her value and also his or her needs in order to deliver that value. Some will want independence of action—autonomy—others will want a greater degree of safety (in whatever way that means to them), some will place more emphasis on “fun” and others on getting “respect” (again, in whatever ways are appropriate to them).

People come to work for four basic reasons, and these are very much the reasons for them staying:

  • To relate: we are social creatures first and foremost
  • To acquire: money, yes, but more than that status. Humans relate status to safety. They also very closely relate what they earn to their sense of status.
  • To learn: the brain is a learning machine. When we stop learning our system prepares us for death.
  • To defend: Initially, we come to defend our lifestyle or our family through our earnings, but the longer we remain at a place of work we become increasingly loyal to our immediate colleagues and if he or she is skillful, our manager or supervisor—and through them the firm or organization.

These are the essences of fulfillment at work.

What now? Leaders must learn how to discover what each individual that they lead or manage needs to feel fulfilled in each of these areas—it means asking, which unfortunately so few do. In humans there is no “one size” or one “management style” that first all, or even close to all.

By Dr Bob Murray