Empowering leadership: Does it always work?

It’s been over 3 decades since the concept of employee empowerment was born.

To date it has many advocates – including us! Empowered employees – people who have the confidence in their competence to undertake challenging tasks as well as the personal agency and control to achieve attainable goals – have been consistently linked to outcomes of higher work-related performance, higher levels of job satisfaction and deeper organisational commitment compared to others. In a world of constant digital disruption, motivated employees are seen as critical to achieving success.  Moving from a ‘command and control’ to an ‘empower and engage’ mindset has become increasingly a key to success.

But – not so fast! A recent study by Lee, Willis and Tian found that delegating authority and decision making, sharing information and asking for employee input isn’t always the best leadership style for motivating certain types of performance and certain types of employees. Curious?


When empowering leadership works best…

Empowering leadership works best in 2 situations. First, where employee creativity and problem solving are required or where an employees’ discretionary effort can have a big impact on customer experience, an empowering leadership style has been shown to be much more effective than a directive one. Second, where trust is a critical element of organisational success, an empowering leadership style helps build trust with employees – an essential factor in fostering teamwork, productivity and retention.

Let’s take a closer look…

Boosting Employee Confidence and Trust

Employees who thought their leaders were more empowering felt:

  • A greater sense of autonomy or control in their work;
  • Their job was more meaningful and aligned with their values; and
  • They were competent in their abilities and could make a difference

In addition, employees who saw their leaders as more empowering trusted them because:

  • They did not feel their efforts would be exploited;
  • The leader was mentoring and supporting employee development NOT attempting to avoid the work themselves; and
  • They felt a sense of safety and were willing to take on more risks without feeling vulnerable

It’s easy to see how an empowering leadership approach – one that boosts employee confidence and trust – is essential in work environments where creativity, problem solving and initiative are required.

Understanding employee expectations

So when does empowered leadership not work? Where employees believe their leaders can’t lead and are trying to avoid making difficult decisions, an empowering leadership style leads to worse performance on routine tasks then a directive leadership style. The key is to understanding employees’ expectations. When the leaders’ empowering approaches do not align with subordinates’ expectations i.e. they grant too much or too little autonomy and decision-making responsibilities, subordinates may perceive this behaviour negatively – and act accordingly.


Using an empowering leadership style is a must do these days. It motivates employees and fuels their creativity. But it can also create additional burdens and stress that may hurt their routine performance. Effective leaders understand that successfully adopting an empowering leadership style relies on factors such as boosting employee confidence, building trust and being a supportive mentor.

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