Many leaders are, by nature, entrepreneurial. But that doesn’t mean the workers they manage share a drive to think for themselves and solve problems. Some tasks simply don’t have room for it.
Some types of work require problem-solving and risk-taking, while more rote, structured jobs have less room for creativity. For workers in the first camp, having the freedom to dream up and experiment with new ideas is crucial to getting their jobs done. But those who aren’t responsible for creative solutions might be frustrated or confused when given autonomy.
A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior concluded that empowering workers — letting them work without monitoring, asking for input and giving them a role in decision-making — does not always translate to job satisfaction, skill-building and productivity. In some cases, employees may feel uncertain about how to proceed or even resent leaders who empower them.
Researchers from the University of Exeter Business School, Alliance Manchester Business School and Curtin Business School conducted the study. They examined the performance of 8,500 workers from 105 companies around the world in a range of industries and found that employees responsible for routine tasks do not respond well when presented with autonomy by their boss. Instead, many suspect a boss is dumping his or her own higher-level responsibilities, such as decision-making, on them. In turn, these frustrated workers are less productive day to day.
Conversely, empowerment encourages those responsible for more creative tasks to work harder, help others and be proactive.
What’s more important than granting everyone the independence to manage themselves is trust-building between bosses and employees, the researchers note. Sometimes, empowering a creative worker can backfire if a boss tries to have it both ways, saying they’ll let the worker make their own decisions but not giving them the authority to actually do so — or not being there for employees when they inevitably want to discuss ideas from time to time.
Meanwhile, workers have to prove to their bosses that they can function productively without close monitoring.
“Workers have got to feel that their boss supports them to take risks when empowering leadership is being used,” says Allan Lee, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Business School who led the research, in a summary of the findings. “But bosses are also vulnerable when they manage people in this way. People could take advantage of the trust put in them. Trust is a powerful factor in how effective empowering leadership can be.”
Lee and his fellow researchers also made a counterintuitive conclusion about whether managers should give new hires more freedom: It turns out people who are new on the job both respond and perform better when empowered at work, compared to employees who have been on board longer. Even though they don’t know the ropes as well, they may be less cynical and more willing to experiment, the researchers note.