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."
(Note for media: Please include the following link to the study in all online media coverage:

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

Michigan State University

Related Employees Articles from Brightsurf:

How initiatives empowering employees can backfire
Strategies meant to motivate people in the workplace may have unintended consequences -- depending on who's in charge.

Some employees more likely to adhere to information security policies than others
Information security policies (ISP) that are not grounded in the realities of an employee's work responsibilities and priorities exposes organizations to higher risk for data breaches, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Covert tobacco industry marketing tactics exposed by former employees
Tobacco companies use covert marketing tactics and exploit loopholes in Australian tobacco control laws to promote their products despite current tobacco advertising bans, finds new research from University of Sydney and Cancer Council NSW.

How employees' rankings disrupt cooperation and how managers can restore it
First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado, second prize a set of steak knives, third prize you're firedĀ».

Employees less upset at being replaced by robots than by other people
Generally speaking, most people find the idea of workers being replaced by robots or software worse than if the jobs are taken over by other workers.

Some LGBT employees feel less supported at federal agencies
Workplace inequality is visible when it involves gender and race, but less so with sexual identity and gender expression.

Workplace interventions may improve sleep habits and duration for employees
Simple workplace interventions, like educating employees about the importance of sleep and providing behavioral sleep strategies, may produce beneficial results, according to a new review.

To keep the creative juices flowing, employees should be receptive to criticism
Though most firms today embrace a culture of criticism, when supervisors and peers dispense negative feedback it can actually stunt the creative process, according to a new study co-authored by Yeun Joon Kim, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

How a positive work environment leads to feelings of inclusion among employees
Fostering an inclusive work environment can lead to higher satisfaction, innovation, trust and retention among employees, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

How susceptible are hospital employees to phishing attacks?
A multicenter study finds high click rate for simulated phishing emails, potential benefit in phishing awareness training.

Read More: Employees News and Employees Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to