When Empowering Employees DOESN’T Work…

We all have the best of intentions when trying to empower staff. 

However, what if in trying to empower them is actually having a negative effect, and simply increasing their job stress?

Some employees respond to empowering leadership more than others.

A robust study done by Harvard Business School (Lee, Willis & Tian, 2018) found that cultural differences actually played a large role in how staff perceived increased authority, delegation and responsibility as being empowering or not. 

The study found those in Eastern cultures – such as China, South Korea and India indicated a higher level of empowerment from this than in Western cultures, where this just increased stress. 

Social norms were considered as a reason for the differences, with researchers indicating that in western societies – increased delegation of tasks was considered to be indiscriminately controlling and even an intrusion, and such societies felt more empowered with increased independence from their leader.

Employee empowerment vs task performance

In the same study by Harvard Business School, researchers found that empowering leaders were linked to good employee performance on routine, core job tasks – but they weren’t much different from non-empowering leaders. 

“Sometimes leaders who tried to empower their employees ended up doing more harm than good,” said a researcher. 

For example, trying to provide employees with additional responsibility and challenges at work, leaders who thought they were empowering their employees were actually burdening them by inadvertently increasing their level of job stress.

Empowering employees works more effectively for new employees, not more established. 

The study also found that those that were new to an organisation developed increased performance when they were made to feel empowered and have more control in decision making, however didn’t have much of an effect on longer tenured staff members. 

So what can you do to avoid these things? Are there some universal practices that can help ALL staff feel empowered?

1. Acknowledge a staff member’s strengths and competencies

Provide more opportunities for them to be able to perform more of what they’re strong at. 

When a staff member feels competent, they’ll feel empowered. Don’t forget to check in and see if the increased responsibility in that area is actually something they want more of. 

2. Provide a safe space. 

Ensure all staff members know they can talk about anything that is challenging them within their role, and develop a contingency plan in partnership with them to identify areas that may be disempowering for them. 

3. Ask + communicate. 

Ask staff members on an individual basis what they do to feel empowered, and get them to describe a task or time when they felt empowered at work. 

As identified above, there are individual differences between what empowers a staff members – what may work for one, may not work for the other. 

By asking, you offer an opportunity for coherent communication of what that looks like, instead of guessing or assuming. 

Question time…

What do you do to avoid disempowering your staff? Are there particular behaviours & leadership practices that you engage in currently that you think are helping your staff? What feedback have you received from staff on how that makes them feel?

If you want some more support and in-depth training on how to help your staff feel empowered, productive and love coming to work, our intensive and immersive 90 Day Online Culture Accelerator is a self paced, 12 module program to develop leadership skills, hire the right talent, and develop high value growth & people plans for your business. 

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