There is a large consensus regarding the positive benefits resulting from employee engagement. A meta-analysis of all available field experiments on leaders empowering subordinates was conducted on a total of 105 studies. The study’s focus assessed whether an empowering leadership style was linked to improved job performance and whether this was true of different types of performance, such as routine task performance, organisational citizenship behaviour and creativity.

Besides demonstrating the benefits of empowerment, such as increased levels of creativity, trust, organisational citizenship behaviour and sense of autonomy, another interesting finding was revealed.

When a leader empowers employees, they ask them to take on additional challenges and responsibilities at work. Employees could view this in one of two ways:

  1. 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
  2. They may see those as evidence that the leader cannot lead and is trying to avoid making difficult decisions.

In the second view, employees may become frustrated and uncertain about their role, leading to poorer performance on tasks. It is therefore vital that, when trying to empower their employees, leaders do not add too much pressure or create uncertainty.

There are times when empowering someone who is not ready for it can backfire. There are many reasons, such as the newly empowered employee not being able to handle the increased responsibility, stress or work; they may not be good at making decisions;  and they may make bad decisions and not disclose the outcome until it is too late to be fixed.

The study showed that the effects of leading by empowering others are determined by how employees perceive their leader’s behaviour. The study found that empowering leadership can become positive under the following conditions:

  1. When empowerment is underpinned by mentoring and supporting employee development, it can create a trusting relationship;
  2. Employees have their own expectations of how much leaders should try to empower them. When the leaders’ empowering approaches align with subordinates’ expectations – for example, if they grant just enough autonomy and decision-making responsibilities; and
  3. Empowering leadership had a stronger positive influence on the performance of employees who had less experience in the organisation compared to employees who had been in their jobs for longer.

When considering empowering somebody, take the following into consideration:

  • Look for traits that are critical to success such as confidence, morals and good communication skills;
  • Have a conversation to ascertain whether empowerment and extra responsibility is what the individual wants or can handle;
  • Ensure a that development plan is in place to build leadership skills;
  • Ensure expectations and boundaries are clearly set out; and
  • Monitor them closely.

References:

Lee, A., Willis, S., &Tian, A.W. (2018). When empowering employees works, and when it doesn’t. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/03/when-empowering-employees-works-and-when-it-doesnt

Shimonski, R. (2014). Empowerment can backfire on a leader. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141102210019-9900464-empowerment-can-backfire-on-a-leader-turn-negative-to-positive-now/

 

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