How initiatives empowering employees can backfire

October 20, 2020

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Strategies meant to motivate people in the workplace may have unintended consequences -- depending on who's in charge. Recent research from Michigan State University and Ohio State University shows that empowerment initiatives aren't necessarily the answer for business leaders hoping to motivate their employees.

"People tend to think of empowerment in uniformly positive ways," said Nicholas Hays, study co-author and associate professor of management in MSU's Eli Broad College of Business. "After all, humans crave independence and control so giving it to them at work should be a good thing. However, as people feel increasingly autonomous, they can also become unmoored from others' needs, expectations and social norms."

Hays explained that, in recent decades, companies have increasingly implemented various forms of empowerment initiatives that assume empowered leaders will translate into empowered workers.

The paper -- published in Journal of Applied Psychology -- found that, when properly implemented, empowerment initiatives can lead to heightened motivation, productivity and creativity. However, whether these initiatives are effective at all levels of the organization depends on the management style of the person implementing them.

Hays - along with Broad College of Business colleague, Russell E. Johnson, MSU Foundation Professor of management, and Hun Whee Lee, assistant professor of management at Ohio State University and lead author of the study -- found that superiors who value being respected will respond to empowerment initiatives by, in turn, empowering their workers. But, superiors who value being in charge will, somewhat ironically, respond to empowerment initiatives by closely controlling, dominating and managing their employees.

The researchers conducted three separate studies measuring outcomes of empowerment initiatives that considered personality trait data and leader behavior.

"We found that leaders who really care about being respected by their subordinates tend to react to empowerment initiatives by 'paying it forward' with certain behaviors. This could include things like allowing subordinates to set their own goals or decide how to accomplish tasks," Lee said. "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."

If an employee is uncomfortable with a superior's leadership style, the researchers say it may be beneficial to have a candid conversation between worker and boss.

"Many leaders are receptive to feedback and want to provide employees what they need to succeed at work," Hays said. "If that doesn't work, looking for different groups to join - either within an organization and with a different supervisor or even by changing organizations altogether - is sometimes the best option."

And in the unprecedented workplace environment of 2020, Hays also offered insight into what he believes the paper's findings may indicate for employees in real time.

"To the extent that leaders prioritize dominance and being in charge, they may go out of their way to micromanage employees by, for example, monitoring their online status and requesting frequent check-ins," Hays said. "I wouldn't necessarily characterize this as abusing an empowerment initiative, but certainly could rub employees the wrong way."
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(Note for media: Please include the following link to the study in all online media coverage:
https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fapl0000813)

Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for 160 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

For MSU news on the Web, go to MSUToday. Follow MSU News on Twitter at twitter.com/MSUnews.

Michigan State University

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