Empowered employees are a benefit to organisations, but new research shows motivation has a big impact on how empowering a leader will be.
Employees who are empowered to make their own decisions and work autonomously can make workflows easier and smoother for all, especially in a remote work environment.
While you might have the best employee empowerment initiatives in place – developed by people with expertise in the field – it’s not worth the paper it’s written on unless it’s delivered by the right kind of leader.
New research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, looked at the cascade effect of different approaches to employee empowerment. The researchers found that certain leaders are more interested in hoarding power rather than passing it on to employees.
When empowerment doesn’t work
This research identifies two main theories about how leaders choose to empower their teams. The first is the cascade effect (or trickle-down empowerment). This is the idea that when leaders are empowered they will, in turn, empower their employees. The second, and opposing, theory is that leaders will double down on controlling behaviours out of fear that empowered employees could be a threat to their authority.
The researchers also believe they can predict which option leaders will take based on what motivated the leader to seek power in the first place.
The research identified two main motivations – prestige and dominance. Leaders who have high levels of prestige motivation tend to value respect and admiration. They’re also more likely to respond to empowerment initiatives by encouraging autonomy and independence in their workers.
On the other hand, dominance-motivated leaders usually desire authority over others. They respond to empowerment initiatives by trying to exert greater control over their employees.
Speaking to Science Daily, lead author and assistant professor of management at Ohio State University Hun Whee Lee said prestige-motivated employers reacted to empowerment initiatives by “playing it forward” and empowering their employees through certain behaviours, such as allowing them to set their own goals or decide how to accomplish tasks.
“In contrast, leaders who prefer to be in control and tell others what to do tend to react to these initiatives by doubling down on their desire for control. This is when we see things like micromanaging or setting specific goals for subordinates,” writes Lee.
The research paper’s co-author and associate professor of management at Michigan State University Nicholas Hays says there’s a possibility that dominance-motivated leader’s controlling behaviours could be exacerbated by remote work.
“To the extent that leaders prioritise dominance and being in charge, they may go out of their way to… [monitor] their online status and [request] frequent check-ins,” says Hays.
Motivation is key
Though it seems like prestige-motivated leaders would be the better choice, that’s not always the case.
A 2018 study on prestige oriented leaders found the desire to be liked often out weighed the desire to improve performance levels of their teams. Prestige-motivated leaders were willing to sacrifice group performance goals and even monetary rewards tied to those goals in an effort to preserve their reputation.
However, dominance-motivated leaders did not face the same dilemma, as they were not concerned about the social repercussions of unpopular decisions.
Prestige and dominance-motivated personalities are drawn to leadership positions for entirely different reasons, but neither are perfect leaders. Distinguishing between dominance or prestige-motivated leaders before making leadership promotions is vital, especially if your organisation relies on trickle-down empowerment. But how can you tell which camp an individual falls into?
Though dominance oriented leaders can display some negative traits (such as controlling or intimidating behaviour) they are also generally perceived as more assertive, confident and decisive which can make them attractive managerial candidates.
Identifying where a potential leader falls on the dominance-prestige scale could help you decide if they are appropriate for your organisation. Here’s a handy online resource that you could use to get this information.
Making empowerment work
Empowered employees are generally better for workplaces. They have higher job satisfaction, better work performance and greater organisational commitment.
A 2018 meta-study by researchers from the UK and Australia, found that while empowerment didn’t have much effect on routine tasks, it did improve creativity. Because empowered employees have an enhanced sense of competence and autonomy, the study found they tend to feel safer in expressing their creativity at work.
The researchers also noted that empowered employees felt a greater sense of organisational citizenship behaviour which translated into them being more willing to help other employees, volunteer for extra assignments, or be willing to support their organisation outside an official capacity.
However, they say that longitudinal studies in empowerment are very rare, so academics are still unsure what the long-term effects of empowerment might be. It is possible that, when implemented poorly, greater autonomy or decision-making responsibilities could add stress to some employees.
McKinsey & Company senior partner Aaron De Smet suggests leaders make sure they’re not taking a “hands-off” approach to empowerment.
Much like Lee’s suggestion that there are two drivers towards leadership, De Smet suggests there are two main responses that leaders take when attempting to empower employees. They either become helicopter bosses, swooping in to fix problems when things go wrong, or they micromanage. Neither, says De Smet, are actually empowering.
Writing on the McKinsey blog, De Smet says to truly empower employees, managers should give them the space to experience some autonomy but also hold the employee accountable if problems arise. He recommends leaders avoid fixing issues for employees and instead ask questions or offer options when employees come looking for help.
There is, perhaps, an area that dominance-motivated leaders get right when it comes to empowerment. De Smet says empowerment is a high-touch interaction, which is second nature to dominance-motivated leaders. However, they need to learn how to redirect their approach so it helps employees to thrive.
“Genuine empowerment requires leaders to be involved, to be of service, to coach and mentor, to guide, to inspire – it means frequent, highly involved interactions, just of a different nature than the autocratic and controlling style,” writes De Smet.
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