Empowering employees can bring rewards for HK managers

Activities like delegation, persuasion and mentoring can help find solutions to long-term problems

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 February, 2017, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 February, 2017, 10:46pm

“Show initiative”. “Think out of the box”. These are phrases we often hear as bosses encourage their employees to be more proactive at the workplace by taking charge, challenging the status quo and initiating strategic change.

At work, taking charge means engaging in a constructive effort to change how work is executed with respect to the job, work unit or organisation.

Although taking charge certainly has its benefits such as improved work performance, many Asian cultures including China also emphasise the importance of renqing (or face) and harmony – characteristics which may contradict taking charge.

But certain leadership styles may overcome this. An empowering leadership style that enables the sharing of power with an employee through greater decision-making autonomy, expressions of confidence in employees’ capabilities, and removal of obstacles to performance may encourage employees to take charge.

How does this occur? And under what circumstances does it occur?

In a collaboration between National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School with Wuhan University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology, my research colleagues and I studied 310 full-time employees in China from 81 work groups with diverse backgrounds such as production and operation, project management, marketing, human resources, finance and administration.

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We found that when bosses delegate, persuade, mentor, encourage communication, and allow for employees to participate in decision-making, in other words empowering them, employees become more confident in engaging in proactive activities such as finding a solution to a long-term problem.

Such confidence in turn translates into taking charge. As taking charge involves changing the status quo, which in itself is potentially risky, having a boost of confidence strengthens employees’ courage to take such risks. Confidence also raises their feelings of control so that employees think they are more likely to succeed – elements needed to take charge.

Further, to effect change is no easy task. People are generally averse to change. Equipping employees with more confidence to handle change goes a long way.

Our research found that indeed when such confidence is absent among Chinese employees, they become less proactive in taking charge.

Sometimes, a boss may empower one employee more so than another. While such differentiated empowerment may be accepted in certain cultures, it is less well received in China.

Chinese culture is collectivistic – the needs of the group supersede that of the individual for group cohesion. By empowering selectively, the boss violates the collectivistic norm in a Chinese workplace. Our study showed that this could potentially wipe out the positive effects of instilling confidence from such empowerment.

Chinese culture is also known to be hierarchical where there are clear delineations between supervisor and subordinates. But not all Chinese accept power and authority of others easily. We observed several consequences arising from this notion of hierarchy.

Employees who are more accepting of a hierarchical structure – that is, are comfortable with a clear delineation between ranks – benefit more under an empowering leadership but only when that boss empowers selectively. This means that when a boss delegates decision making to certain employees, which implies that these chosen are higher ranked than those not empowered, employees who prefer hierarchy feel more confident and become more motivated to make a change in their work habit. However, if the boss empowers everyone, that resulted in such employees becoming less confident in their work, and hence, less willing to take charge.

Interestingly, among individuals who prefer a flatter organisation where most employees are similarly ranked, the boss who empowers and does so with a broad brush for all employees, such employees benefit most from such leadership. If the boss empowers selectively to certain employees, employee confidence becomes low, resulting in less proactive behaviour for individuals who prefer no ranking.

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In all cases, employees with bosses who do not empower have the least level of confidence and are less likely to take initiative and change their work patterns for more productivity.

Our study demonstrates that leaders who empower play a critical role in motivating employees to take charge. If organisations want to motivate employees to show initiative, promote innovation and improve performance, they have to pay more attention to the managerial selection process. Ideally, managers ought to have the personality that appreciates delegation and seeing employees challenging them.

For managers who are less willing to delegate, research has shown they tend to be those who are very achievement oriented and experience difficulty in forming relationships with others. For such managers, training may be needed to help them let go and delegate, while still maintaining their drive for accomplishment.

Organisations may also do well to monitor employee confidence as an indication of how effective managers have been in empowering them. This is somewhat like tracking consumer confidence for feedback on the economy and to anticipate buying behaviour.

In collectivistic societies such as China, bosses who empower selectively among employees can erode the benefits of empowerment on confidence, especially among employees who eschew hierarchy. We offer two solutions.

First, managers should engage in group-centred empowerment to all employees within that work unit equally to promote more taking charge behaviours.

Second, when managers delegate authority to selected individuals rather than to all employees, they need to be sensitive to employees’ hierarchical preferences. This is because even though empowering differentially may still reap benefits among employees who are willing to accept that there are differences in ranks, it is unlikely to motivate those who dislike such rankings.

Sam Yam Kai Chi is assistant professor of management and organisation at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School