March 5, 2018

Empowering Employees Doesn’t Always Work

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Giving employees latitude by delegating authority and decision making can help them feel empowered, which can improve job performance and satisfaction, as well as commitment to the business. As an owner, ideally you want employees who can think and act on their own, within certain guidelines, so you don’t always have to be watching over their shoulder to make sure work gets done properly.

On a large dairy there can be several layers of employees based on experience, length of time with the company, ability to perform a specific task and other factors. Due to the diversity of your workforce, a recent research study showed that while empowering employees can certainly be successful, it can also have negative results.  

A research group led by Allan Lee, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Business School in the UK, conducted a meta analysis of field experiments on leaders who empowered subordinates. The study examined if an empowering leadership style was linked to improved job performance, and if this was true to different types of performance requirements. A synopsis of the results was published in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review:

  • Empowering leaders had more creative and helpful employees. Empowering leaders were perceived more likely to delegate authority to employees, ask for input and encourage decision making. According to Lee, this type of leadership seems to encourage employees to generate novel ideas and think of new ways of doing things, help others in the workplace, volunteer for extra assignment and support their organization outside of the workplace.

“Empowered employees are more likely to be powerful, confident individuals who are committed to meaningful goals and demonstrate initiative and creativity to achieve them,” Lee says. “They typically have the freedom to generate novel ideas and the confidence that these ideas will be valued.”

  • But feeling empowered doesn’t always boost routine task performance. The study showed that while empowering leaders were linked to good employee performance on routine tasks, there wasn’t much difference from results generated from non-empowering leaders. However, there was great variability, researchers noted.

In one study a leader who tried to provide employees with additional responsibility and challenges burdened employees with too much work and increased stress levels. On the other hand, the empowering leaders who did see better performance on routine tasks were the ones who developed good relationships with their employees and were more trusted.

“Our results again showed that the effects of leading by empowering others are determined by how employees perceive their leader’s behavior,” Lee says. “Followers may view greater autonomy or shared decision making as an indication that the leader trusts them and is providing them with opportunities for self-development and growth. Or they may see those as evidence that the leader can’t lead and is trying to avoid making difficult decisions.” Lee adds that it’s vital that leaders, when trying to give employees more responsibility, not add too much pressure or create uncertainty.

Results of the meta analysis, Lee says, suggest that empowering leadership can motivate employees, but it can also create additional burdens and stress that may hurt their routine performance. “It is crucial for managers to understand that empowering leadership has its limits and that factors like trust and experience affect how their behaviors are perceived,” he says.