Empowering Workers May Backfire for Some Tasks

A new study finds that giving employees more authority and asking their opinion may actually be counterproductive for a noncreative job task.

University of Exeter researchers discovered managerial attempts to empower staff by delegating different work to them or asking for their opinions can be detrimental for employee productivity.

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 had thought it allowed staff to develop their skills and would result in better job satisfaction.

New research suggests, however, that promoting good relationships between bosses and staff can be a more effective way to make them more efficient. Still, investigators found that empowering some workers can help improve creativity.

The study appears in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

The style of empowering leadership, developed 20 years ago, has become more popular in the past decade as the organizational structures of companies have become flatter.

The managerial approach involves giving employees authority to get on with their work without regular monitoring, asking for their opinions, and letting them participate in decision making.

Research by the University of Exeter Business School, Alliance Manchester Business School, and Curtin Business School shows empowering workers can be effective when used for employees who have to carry out creative tasks.

The managerial style motivates employees 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. The danger is that an employee may interpret this style of leadership as just a way of their boss delegating more of their workload to others.

For the study, researchers examined information about 105 companies around the world, and looked at the performance of 8,500 individual people working in mixture of industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, sales, and schools.

Researchers discovered trust is also a key component for choice of managerial style 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.

Dr. Allan Lee, from the University of Exeter Business School, who led the research, said, “Using an empowered style of leadership can be detrimental and create uncertainly 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.”

Source: University of Exeter/Wiley