Want to empower your workers? Stop micromanaging them!

Real leaders trust their employees to do the right thing

Want to empower your workers? Stop micromanaging them!

Your leadership style might be rubbing your workers the wrong way – and it might ultimately cause them to feel demotivated.

While most organisations develop programs to empower their workers, how effective these strategies are will still depend on the individual leader’s management style, according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“People tend to think of empowerment in uniformly positive ways,” said Nicholas Hays, study co-author and associate professor of management at the Michigan State University (MSU).

Read more: How to build a 'speak up' workplace culture

Giving employees some degree of autonomy should be a “good thing,” since humans often crave independence and control. When employers trust their people to do the right thing, workers are also more likely to become creative, productive and inspired to do their job, the study found.

However, empowerment strategies can also backfire if a leader has a habit of micromanaging.

These initiatives are effective only insofar as the leader is willing to listen and let other team members take charge. “As people feel increasingly autonomous, they can also become unmoored from others’ needs, expectations and social norms,” Hays told ScienceDaily.

The researchers from MSU and Ohio State University (OSU) examined employee empowerment programs which factored in data on personality traits and leadership behaviour.

“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 behaviours,” said Hun Whee Lee, assistant professor of management at OSU and lead author of the study. “This could include things like allowing subordinates to set their own goals or decide how to accomplish tasks.”

“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,” he said. “This is when we see things like micromanaging or setting specific goals for subordinates.”

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Team leaders are often receptive to feedback, but they should sit down with staff members to work through their differences.

“If that doesn’t work, looking for different groups to join – either within an organisation and with a different supervisor or even by changing organisations altogether – is sometimes the best option,” said Hays.

In the age of remote working, some micromanagers also monitor their employees’ online status and schedule check-ins more frequently.

“I wouldn’t necessarily characterise this as abusing an empowerment initiative, but certainly could rub employees the wrong way,” Hays said.

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