This leadership style is particularly relevant to deal with the complexities of today’s work and to motivate a well-prepared workforce. For example, empowering leadership has been shown to increase followers’ performance, innovation, and satisfaction .
Despite its advantages, empowering leadership can also have some drawbacks. For example, it can lead to unethical behavior, performance delays, and increased levels of stress. It is important to be aware of these possibilities so that you can take measures to prevent them from occurring.
Empowering leadership tends to be equally effective across industries and you can see successful applications in, for example, technology, banking, agricultural production, and education.
Read on to learn more about empowering leadership as we break down the science behind this leadership style.
Definition of empowering leadership
Empowering leadership is the process of sharing power with followers, while also enabling and facilitating their development and autonomy . It is a leadership style focused on enhancing followers’ levels of self-reliance, psychological empowerment, and ability to lead themselves at work.
This definition highlights four aspects of empowering leadership.
Empowering leadership is an ongoing process
Empowering leadership is an ongoing process enacted by the leader, through which followers gain greater autonomy at work, access to resources, and control over the allocation of those resources. As such, empowering leadership is an important mechanism by which followers gain mastery of their lives at work.
This means that the work of empowering leaders is seldom over. For instance, turbulence and change can leave followers unable to cope with the new demands of work; and followers’ heavy workload may limit their ability to master important new skills. Empowering leadership is an important underlying ongoing force not only facilitating, but also sustaining followers’ self-leadership and self-reliance, sometimes under difficult circumstances such as those just described.
Empowering leaders do not, necessarily, lose or gain power
Empowering leadership relies on the idea that there is no such thing as a fixed quantity of power at work. It is possible for an empowering leader to share power with followers and also to gain power at work.
This happens because truly empowering leaders change or expand their sources of power. Their power comes from being agents of change, not from their formal authority.
For example, instead of setting the work pace, empowering leaders have the power to create structures and to implement conditions for high performance. Likewise, instead of deciding alone and risking a sub-optimal outcome, empowering leaders can gain expert power in the organization by leveraging followers’ pool of information and knowledge.
In empowering leadership there is a transformation in the relation of power between a leader and a follower, such that both parties gain power.
Empowering leadership is a strongly relational style
Empowering leadership requires relational reciprocity. The same way two people can only be friends if both accept and reciprocate their friendship, empowering leaders need followers who voluntarily accept and reciprocate leaders’ influence.
In real life at work, not all followers are receptive to leaders’ empowering efforts, and not all leaders are comfortable and capable of adopting empowering behaviors. The transformation that empowering leadership elicits in both leaders and followers can only occur when both parties are on the same page and actively engaged.
Thus, while empowering leadership has the potential to empower followers, in reality empowering leaders simply signal the importance of autonomy and development through complex patterns of behavior, and structure the work environment to ease followers’ growth and self-reliance. Whether followers develop, based on the actions of a leader, a shared meaning around development and autonomy is ultimately up to them.
Empowering leadership is scalar
There are empowering leaders, leaders who do not engage in empowering leadership, and everyone else in between. That is, there are many levels of empowering leadership, and some leaders engage in empowering leadership more strongly than others.
Likewise, when someone adopts an empowering leadership style, the magnitude and duration of the impact, and the time required to produce the desired change in followers varies. For example, a leader can be more empowering to a follower than to another, or followers may reach a desired proficiency level at different paces.
Empowering leadership behaviors
Ultimately, empowering leaders are focused on developing followers and elevating them into effective self-leaders, capable of working autonomously.
This autonomous work from followers includes establishing goals, starting tasks, and motivating themselves without leaders’ intervention, while also being proactive and self-reliant at work.
- Autonomy support
- Delegating and fostering participation in decision making
- Delegating decisions to followers on how to improve work processes, customer service, and procedures;
- Making decisions with followers, or explaining the rationale behind decisions when participation in decision-making is not possible;
- Encouraging participation in meetings, actively listening to followers’ ideas and suggestions, and using those when making decisions at work.
- Encouraging initiative
- Encouraging followers to set their own goals, to start tasks on their own initiative, and to do their work as they see fit;
- Encouraging followers to solve problems as they arise, without leaders’ supervision, input, or approval;
- Removing bureaucratic constraints and providing the necessary leeway for followers to test new ideas (even if those may fail to produce results).
- Emphasizing accountability for results
- Making clear that followers are accountable for their own decisions;
- Restructuring performance measurement systems, so that followers are accountable and rewarded for their responsibilities, contributions, and results;
- Ensuring that followers are accountable for and use the power that was shared with them ethically.
- Encouraging goal focus
- Helping followers understand the purpose, goals, and expectations of the organization;
- Showing enthusiasm while discussing organizational and followers’ goals;
- Highlighting and explaining the relevance of followers’ work to the broader effectiveness goals of the organization;
- Aligning followers’ goals with those of the organization to ensure both are reached.
- Supporting efficacy beliefs
- Expressing confidence in followers’ ability to carry out their work successfully;
- Being familiar with followers’ strengths and promoting their use to achieve excellence;
- Showing interest in followers’ ideas, being confident in their ability to follow through, and trusting in followers’ ability to bounce back when mistakes are made.
- Coordinating and information sharing
- Sharing the information that followers need to produce high quality results and to meet clients’ needs;
- Urging followers to coordinate their efforts with each other, to exchange information openly, and to work collaboratively as a team;
- Discussing shared goals with followers so that coordination can be achieved.
- Development support
- Modeling behaviors
- Setting a good example on how to behave at work (e.g., setting high effectiveness standards, working hard and smart, putting as much work as everyone else);
- Demonstrating courage to face adversities and making sacrifices to achieve work-related goals;
- Being energized at work and showing a strong commitment towards learning and continuous improvement.
- Providing guidance for skill development
- Sharing how they structure their days and plan their work, and tipping followers on improvement opportunities;
- Encouraging followers to look for learning opportunities and to develop new skills;
- Prioritizing learning and continuous improvement, and providing frequent opportunities for followers to develop their skills;
- Giving access to organizational networks that can benefit followers’ development, and supporting access and use of organizational policies that followers can leverage for their own development;
- Pointing out ways to improve at work.
- Caring and showing concern
- Caring about followers’ personal and professional challenges;
- Treating all followers as equals and showing concern for their well-being and success;
- Spending time with followers to see what is being done, and to better understand the strengths and improvement opportunities of followers.
- Encouraging opportunity thinking
- Encouraging followers to look at failures and setbacks as learning experiences;
- Helping followers to think of obstacles at work as learning opportunities and not as problems;
- Replanning work in response to the opportunities that frequently arise when implementing a planned course of action.
The behaviors associated with empowering leadership are extensive and broad. In practice, most leaders adopt a specific set of empowering behaviors, depending on aspects like followers’ characteristics, type of industry, and organizational culture and strategy .
This diversity of behaviors is also present in how researchers and practitioners measure empowering leadership. Each empowering leadership measure available focuses on a specific subset of the behaviors described above and usually reflects the characteristics of the population under study.
While the specific manifestations of empowering leadership may vary from leader to leader, they all have in common the underlying idea of empowering leaders sharing their power by developing and giving autonomy to followers.
Importance of empowering leadership
Empowering leadership is important to deal effectively with the challenges of today’s work and to motivate the current workforce.
Given that leadership jobs are becoming increasingly complex, challenging, and unpredictable, it is difficult – if not impossible – for leaders to come up with solutions to all the issues that arise at work on their own.
Such context calls for empowering initiatives, such as involving followers in decision-making, empowering them to do their jobs in the manner that they believe will be most effective for the situation at hand, and stimulating effective teamwork as a means to generate new alternatives and to deal with work challenges.
On top of that, the workforce is becoming increasingly educated, well trained, and capable of working on their own. This gives organizations the opportunity to flatten their structures, to remove unnecessary hierarchies, and to decentralize power to their lowest hierarchies. In fact, organizations that endorse these and other empowering initiatives tend to outperform and to have more motivated employees, than those that rely only on traditional and rigid hierarchical structures .
Taking a more humane perspective, empowering leadership is also important to satisfy our universal psychological needs, that is, our need for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Research shows that need satisfaction is a critical factor in our well-being. Thus, empowering leadership can, indirectly, have an important role in our well-being at work.
In sum, empowering leadership is important because it is a viable answer to the complexities of today’s work, and a reliable way for leaders to leverage the potential of their well-educated and skilled followers.
Benefits of empowering leadership
Increased quality and acceptance of decisions
By involving followers in decision-making, empowering leaders end up having access to additional information, thus broadening the knowledge base on which decisions are made. As such, together with followers, empowering leaders increase the likelihood of solving complex problems in the workplace.
Empowering leaders also tend to be familiar with followers’ competencies. They understand who knows what and who does what better, for instance. Thus, empowering leaders are in a privileged position to delegate a given decision-making process to the right follower or team.
Further, by participating in decision-making, followers tend to accept and actively participate in the implementation of decisions because they:
- Identify with the decisions made;
- Better understand the rationale behind decisions;
- Voice their concerns over potential drawbacks of decisions and develop potential solutions;
- Develop their participation and decision-making skills as they have the opportunity to exchange ideas with people with other viewpoints and backgrounds.
Increased performance and willingness to go the extra mile
- Promoting a vibrant collaborative environment where information flows freely, knowledge is shared openly, and followers are energized and learning;
- Boosting followers’ intrinsic motivation through psychological empowerment;
- Increasing followers’ willingness to reciprocate the trust and confidence of their leaders.
By focusing on collaboration and promoting self-monitoring, empowering leadership also tends to be an effective leadership style to boost performance in dispersed teams working virtually.
Increased creativity and innovation
For instance, by having autonomy and leeway to explore diverse alternatives, followers may come up with creative solutions to problems. Likewise, by removing organizational constraints, empowering leaders create a context where the implementation of creative ideas is more likely.
Empowering leadership can also stimulate creativity in newcomers. While newcomers are often expected to bring novelty to organizations, many end up conforming to the status quo. Newcomers working with empowering leaders are frequently cued to look for creative solutions to problems, and tend to develop the intrinsic motivation necessary to explore new ideas.
Nevertheless, keep in mind that while empowering leadership tends to enhance innovation, its implementation matters. For example, research has revealed that innovation benefits only occur when leaders empower all followers equally. When leaders treat followers differently, followers may start competing for attention and resources, thus limiting their innovative potential.
Likewise, when followers are overloaded at work, empowering leadership becomes detrimental to those who are trying to increase performance through innovation. Thus, ensuring that followers have the necessary skills and resources to innovate at work is pivotal to a proper implementation of empowering leadership.
Increased customer service satisfaction
Empowered followers tend to believe in their own capabilities to deal with unforeseen circumstances with customers and to have the necessary leeway to adapt the strategies they use with customers in real time, as necessary.
Further, empowering leaders tend to ask followers to voice their opinions, experiences, and suggestions. In doing so, these leaders create a learning environment where new competencies to deal with different customers flow freely among followers.
Enhanced satisfaction, commitment and engagement
- They extract meaning from setting their own goals and determining their own working procedures;
- They see themselves as competent and autonomous, which tends to be intrinsically satisfying and rewarding;
- They want to reciprocate the information received and the opportunity to voice their ideas and viewpoints on important issues.
Increased career confidence, satisfaction and commitment
- Serving as a career role model, which followers can learn from and emulate;
- Providing guidance and feedback for skill development and career advancement;
- Providing learning opportunities that prepare followers for the next steps in their career progression;
- Giving followers the necessary freedom to explore different career options at work;
- Creating opportunities for followers to shine and demonstrate competence at work;
- Creating opportunities for early successes at work that act as foundations for followers’ confidence in their future career.
Followers who work with empowering leaders are encouraged to autonomously and proactively change their work environment to fit their interests, needs, abilities, and projects. That is, followers of empowering leaders tend to engage in job crafting activities.
By redesigning their job, followers create a more resourceful, interesting, and challenging work environment, to which they identify with and want to remain in. As a consequence, empowering leaders tend to lead followers with reduced turnover intentions and withdraw behaviors (such as, daydreaming and leaving early without reasonable justification).
Drawbacks of empowering leadership
Increased job induced tension and stress
- The additional tasks followers receive from empowering leaders (for example, participation in decision making) can interfere with their core work, distract followers from achieving key performance indicators, and increase the time spent switching between tasks;
- Followers may perceive empowering leadership as an attempt to coax them to work more without additional tangible benefits;
- Allocating additional responsibilities to followers can bring confusion and lack of clarity to the core responsibilities of a role;
- Followers may lack the confidence and ability to handle their additional responsibilities;
- Some followers thrive in hierarchical structures and find the autonomy that follows empowering leadership burdening.
Increased unethical pro-organizational behavior
Autonomy gives people a sense of being unconstrained by rules, making them less likely to adhere to the ethical rules and guidelines of an organization.
Further, most followers want to reciprocate the empowerment and good treatment they receive from their leaders. Some reciprocate by giving their best on every project. Others engage in dysfunctional forms of reciprocity, such as unethical pro-organizational behavior (that is, promoting the effectiveness of the organization by violating norms of ethical conduct).
Researchers have found that unethical pro-organizational behavior tends to be particularly high for followers who are depleted at work due to job insecurity, unreasonable bureaucracy, or fierce politics. Under these hindering circumstances, most followers lack the resources to regulate their behavior and to behave with the highest ethical standards in mind.
Under some circumstances empowering leadership can, thus, contribute to a work environment rich in unethical behavior.
A study on teams found that empowering leadership can cause performance delays in the short run, and performance gains in the long run.
The reason for this performance differential of empowering leadership is that teams need time to consolidate the processes and emergent states necessary to perform well autonomously (like exchanging ideas fruitfully, participating in decision making, and understanding who knows what).
While learning how to do their jobs autonomously and how to coordinate their efforts to cope with ill-defined situations, teams can deliver disappointing results under empowering leadership. Only once that learning and empowering process is matured, teams of empowering leaders can reap the performance benefits of this leadership style.
Thus, empowering leadership might not be the optimal route to be adopted under time pressure, as it takes time to deliver its performance benefits. Other leadership styles may be more effective under such circumstances.
Excessive empowering leadership downturns performance
There are diminishing and even negative performance returns to the increased use of empowering leadership.
This tends to happen because the emphasis of empowering leadership on followers’ self-leadership and autonomy can:
- Distract followers from the actual work to be done;
- Signal that performance is secondary, compared to self-development and autonomy;
- Leave followers hesitant to act and clashing with one another, as they may not know their exact responsibilities at work.
Thus, while a balanced approach to empowering leadership tends to boost followers’ performance, too much empowering can be a liability for leaders focused on improving their followers’ performance.
Leaders’ increased vulnerability to followers with bad intentions
By involving followers in important decisions at work and letting them work on their own and based on their own goals, empowering leaders share and give up on some of their formal power and control. In doing so, they become vulnerable to the good will, good intentions, and ethicality of their followers.
For example, leaders may find themselves in a sensitive position if the direction followers choose to follow is not aligned with the desired outcomes or with the best interests of the organization. The same happens if followers make mistakes or if they slack off.
By relinquishing formal control and power, empowering leaders do not abdicate of their accountability for the results of followers. Leaders are still responsible for the outcomes produced by their direct followers.
Empowering leadership, thus, implies high levels of trust in followers – that is, that followers have the ability to produce results, and good intentions and integrity to also care for the leader .
Leaders who adopt an empowering style benefit from working on their relationships with followers, as mutual obligation and reciprocity are the foundations of a trusting relationship.
Followers’ increased vulnerability to unethical empowering leaders
Empowering leadership can raise ethical concerns when used without clear ethical rules and codes of conduct.
Here are some examples of unethical behavior associated with empowering leaders that we have witnessed in our consultancy practice:
- Advertising the services of a senior leader and letting junior followers do the work, without supervision or support;
- Empowering followers to do tasks which leaders are being paid for;
- Empowering followers to do extra tasks with no pay for extra work and responsibility;
- Claiming undeserved credit for followers’ efforts and outputs;
- Leaders using their reputation or network to push forward mediocre work conducted by their empowered followers;
- Undermining followers by empowering them to do work they are not prepared to do, or by establishing unrealistic deadlines;
- Blocking the career progression of empowered followers when they become so good at their job that they are critical for the operation and difficult to replace.
Empowered followers, thus, also need to trust their leaders. As such, the trusting relationship between an empowering leader and a follower largely defines how effective and ethically sound empowering leadership efforts are.
Here is a video, from Dr. Sanjay Khosla (Kellogg School of Management), further exploring the importance of trust in empowering leadership:
It may not work equally well around the globe
The effectiveness of empowering leadership efforts depends on the culture of the country.
For example, research shows that empowering leadership boosts followers’ satisfaction in the United States (low power distance country) but lessens their satisfaction in India (high power distance country). Another study found that empowering leadership is less welcomed in countries high in power distance (for example, India and China).
The reason for this effectiveness and adoption differential is that in power distance countries it is culturally expected that leaders make decisions on their own and, as such, empowering leadership can be seen as a less appropriate form of leadership.
Also, empowering leadership tends to promote followers’ engagement mainly in countries with a future orientation, such as the Netherlands, Austria, and United kingdom. In countries high in future orientation, people believe that their current actions matter for their future, and they have an active role in planning for and building up their future. Empowering leadership is, in these countries, a source of autonomy for people to plan and work on their own vision for the future.
It may not work equally well across industries
However, it can be challenging to adopt an empowering leadership style in industries with strong hierarchical structures and/or in industries with a culture of distrust, bureaucracy, and knowledge hiding.
For example, in the construction industry, strict plans of action tend to be followed for operations to run smoothly and many companies adopt rigid hierarchical structures to implement such plans. In many cases people do not even work together, they simply execute their part of the project and move on to another construction site.
Factors like these make the adoption of empowering leadership challenging in some industries. Nevertheless, when used selectively, carefully managed, and integrated in a cultural shift of the company, empowering leadership can bring profound benefits to industries less predisposed for empowering practices.
Examples of empowering leaders
There are many examples of empowering leadership that come from multiple industries. Here are five examples of successful applications of empowering leadership.
While going through these examples, keep in mind that most of these CEOs, companies, and initiatives adopt more than one leadership style. While we highlighted the empowering behaviors and practices for illustrative purposes, most people and companies rely on more than one leadership style, with the flexibility that every unique situation requires.
- Invested nearly $9 million to reduce differences in pay across gender and ethnicity, demonstrating courage to deal with difficult issues and a role model to follow;
- Created the “Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology” so that employees can discuss the ethical issues of technological advance and, collaboratively, come up with potential solutions;
- Redesigned the workplace (by, for example, installing trivia games in corridors), to ignite casual conversations among people who are not familiar with each other – conversations that may lead to knowledge exchange and innovation in the organization;
- Opened the “Trailblazer Ranch”, so that workers could get together and build their skills collaboratively;
- Pays seven days for employees to volunteer to a cause of their choice;
- Identifies and seeks new challenges and opportunities for employees who have not been promoted in the last 1.5 years.
- Creating a culture of constructive feedback for the professional growth of all Buffer members;
- Making every email public within each team, which encourages open discussions, brings everyone to participate in decision-making early on, and allows consideration of all possible angles to a problem;
- Having a formula-based approach to salary attribution and career progression that is applied consistently, so that the priorities and values of the company are clear to everyone;
- Being committed to total transparency and setting the example (for example, all salaries are made public, including his own);
- Encouraging members to choose where to live and adjusting the salary according to their cost of living.
- There are no global performance goals, budgets, or financial targets, only the need to operate within the bank’s general values and policies;
- Most branch staff have autonomy to make operating decisions (such as granting loans, offering discounts), as they are the ones who know customers best;
- Branch managers, in consultation with their branch staff, decide which customers should be attracted, establish prices, and choose the products that may be more useful for customers;
- Each branch makes their own marketing decisions, according to their analysis of customer needs, at their cost, and involving most of their staff;
- Each branch decides how many people are needed to run operations and how many people they hire;
- Accountability is emphasized, as the loss of a bad loan decision is absorbed by the branch that approved the loan.
A Nicaraguan Agricultural Cooperative
- Providing access to land, so that farmers could produce more, increase their profits, and gain access to bank credit to further expand their operations;
- Allocating part of the cooperative profits to the education of farmers’ children;
- Providing loans and training to support farmers’ agricultural projects;
- Enabling a network of social support in which farmers shared their insights and resources, and collaborated in crop protection;
- Structuring meetings so that all farmers could participate actively in decision making, and in the oversight of the cooperative affairs.
Robert Noyce Master Teaching Fellow Program from the National Science Foundation
The Noyce Master Teaching Fellow program seeks to empower science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers through STEM education courses, mentorship, and professional development activities  . Some of the empowering actions of the program are:
- Facilitating collaborative networks of teachers and researchers from diverse scientific backgrounds, so that they can enrich their research and teaching competencies;
- Training and providing the necessary resources for teachers to conduct and publish their own research, so that their insights and findings can impact other teachers;
- Promoting the use of a systematic research approach in the classroom, so that all pedagogical choices are evidence-based, strategically implemented, and self-directed by teachers;
- Creating a community of like-minded teachers where continuous improvement is reinforced and supported by peers;
- Having mentors with exemplary behaviors that teachers can emulate and learn from (for example, mentors participate actively in meetings and share their teaching and research experience);
- Creating opportunities for communities of teachers to remain in contact over time through conferences and informal gatherings.
As a bonus example, check Michelin’s experience with empowering leadership and their insights on the adoption of this leadership style:
Empowering leadership is an exciting new leadership style with serious potential, particularly when thoughtfully implemented and carefully managed.
By understanding what empowering leadership truly means, learning its behavioral building blocks, knowing the potential outcomes that it can produce, and seeing some real life examples, you have the critical foundations to adopt this leadership style, if you see fit. With this in-depth knowledge of empowering leadership, you should also be better prepared to reap the benefits of this leadership style and to avoid its drawbacks.
As always, we thank you for trusting your time with ManagingLifeAtWork.com. Until next time, if you are willing to give it a try, keep empowering your followers.
References and further reading
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