When Empowering Employees Works, and When It Doesn’t

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Allan Lee, Sara Willis, and Amy Wei Tian for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Research has regularly demonstrated that when employees feel empowered at work, it is associated with stronger job performance, job satisfaction, and commitment to the organization.

Many leaders today often try to empower their employees by delegating authority and decision-making, sharing information, and asking for their input. But our recent research found that this style of leadership works best in motivating certain types of performance and certain types of employees. “Empowering” leaders should know when they can be most effective.

We conducted a meta-analysis of all available field experiments on leaders empowering subordinates – examining the results of 105 studies, which included data from more than 30,000 employees from 30 countries. Our paper was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. We looked at whether an empowering leadership style was linked to improved job performance, and we tested whether this was true of different types of performance, such as routine task performance, organizational citizenship behavior, and creativity. We also tested several mechanisms that might explain how this type of leadership would improve job performance – for example, were these effects caused by increased feelings of empowerment, or by increased trust in one’s leader? Finally, we explored whether leaders who focused on empowering employees influenced employee job performance equally across different national cultures, industries, and levels of employee experience.

Our analysis yielded a few main results: first, empowering leaders 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. Third, 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.

Our meta-analysis compared the effects of leaders who were rated as more empowering by their direct reports with those who were rated are less empowering. Leaders who were perceived as more empowering were more likely to delegate authority to their employees, ask for their input, and encourage autonomous decision-making. And they were more likely to have employees who were rated, by either their leader or colleagues, as being highly creative and good organizational citizens. Specifically, this type of leadership seems to encourage employees to generate novel ideas and think of new ways of doing things, and to help others in the workplace, volunteer for extra assignments, and be willing to support their organization outside of an official capacity.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Allan Lee is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Business School in the UK. His research focuses on leadership and relationships at work.

Sara Willis is a lecturer in organizational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester, UK. Her research explores the impact of leadership on work effectiveness, wellbeing and occupational safety.

Amy Wei Tian is a senior lecturer at Curtin University. Her research focus is in the areas of human resource management and organizational behavior.

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