A new style of management has recently gained popularity in which supervisors aiming to maximize employee engagement attempt to empower their staff. Empowerment in such cases usually involves assigning workers greater authority, granting access to more information, and bestowing additional autonomy in decision making.
Managers that use empowerment techniques often share in the preconception that doing so can only benefit their business. However, a recent meta-analysis of 105 studies on leadership strategies claims to undermine the assumption that empowerment is a universal good. Rather, the analysis asserts that as a motivational tool, empowerment initiatives are best applied on a situational—and individual—basis.
The review—conducted by university business lecturers Allan Lee, Sarah Willis and Amy Wei Tian, and published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior—analyzed over 30,000 workers across 30 countries. It examined whether empowerment boosts organizational performance, as well as which types of performance are benefited. Another question posed was how this leadership style actually translates to improved performance; for example, is it empowerment itself that motivates workers or simply an increased sense of trust in their superiors?
When comparing leaders whom employees considered more empowering to those rated less, it was found that empowering leaders were more likely to have employees known by coworkers and managers as highly creative and devoted to company-wide betterment. Workers who thrived under empowerment generally demonstrated a heightened penchant for novel ideas and new methodologies, as well as a willingness to assist other employees, take on extra tasks, and support their organization from beyond the workplace.
According to the research, such workers excelled in creativity, confidence, and commitment because they actually felt empowered. They derived fulfillment from the freedoms and responsibilities of empowerment. As empowerment made them comfortable in the workplace, they became willing to take the risk of presenting alternative ideas or processes. In addition, empowered employees indicated a greater degree of trust in their supervisors—as long as they didn’t interpret the added responsibility as veiled attempts at passing off work.
In cases where employees read their supervisors’ actions as an attempt to dodge the hard choices that accompany leadership, employees experienced frustration and doubt, not only with leaders, but their own role in the company. In certain situations, this led to an epidemic of on-the-job stress, which stunted performance company-wide.
Researchers also analyzed whether variables such as culture and industry played a part in determining whether empowerment succeeds in boosting performance and engagement. They discovered that while employee receptivity to empowerment varied little between labor and asset-intensive fields, cultural differences—specifically, the way in which Eastern and Western cultures characterize the workplace dynamic—did impact whether empowerment strategies improved performance.
The performance of workers native to Eastern cultures was shown to benefit more from the added responsibility of empowerment than those in the West. To explain this, researchers point to workplace norms in Eastern countries, which dictate that employees are to be unflinchingly loyal and accommodating toward leaders. Western cultures, on the other hand, allow for more independence, therefore Western workers may find empowerment intrusive and overly controlling.
In terms of how empowerment affects overall employee performance, results were largely variable based on unique situations. No definitive trend was observed toward empowerment having a net positive, or net negative effect on general, routine performance—aside from its ability to boost creativity and organizational citizenship. The analysis also had trouble pinpointing whether empowerment itself is responsible for heightened performance and engagement, or whether managers are simply more likely to grant empowerment privileges to workers who naturally perform better and demonstrate investment in the company.
Managers looking to adopt empowerment as a tool for encouraging employees therefore should be mindful not only of how they frame the added responsibility, but who they introduce it to. Instead of a blanket application of empowerment, the focus should be on developing a strong working relationship with all employees, as certain personalities and outlooks seem to function optimally under such a system, while others suffer setbacks in performance and engagement.