Empowering workers can backfire, lead to unethical behavior without good leadership

RALEIGH, N.C. — It can be disheartening to many people to report to a job they consider meaningless. While it makes sense for companies and employers to empower their employees as much as possible, a new study warns that it’s important to go about doing it the right way. Researchers from North Carolina State University found that when institutional obstacles make it harder for workers to do their jobs well, empowerment can actually lead to unethical behavior.

Study authors define an “empowered worker” as an employee who genuinely believes their work is important and has a certain amount of discretion over how to perform their duties. Prior research has found that empowerment can improve job performance, creativity, and employee retention.

“We wanted to know if there were circumstances where empowered employees would use their increased power and discretion to behave unethically – and we found that there are other things leaders need to do if they want to garner the benefits of empowerment and reduce associated risks,” says study co-author Brad Kirkman, the General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership in NC State’s Poole College of Management, in a university release.

“To be clear, this isn’t an argument against empowering employees – that’s still a good idea. Rather, this is highlighting the fact that empowerment by itself isn’t enough,” he adds.

Paying back the company — at any cost

Researchers chose to focus on “hindrance stressors,” which the team defines as any work-related demand making it difficult for employees to do their jobs well. Common examples include unclear job assignments, red tape, conflicting requests from managers, or undeserving co-workers getting rewards or promotions.

Study authors theorized that if employed employees encounter numerous hindrance stressors, they could eventually become “morally disengaged.” Consequently, the morally disengaged worker could engage in unethical pro-organizational behavior, such as lying, withholding negative information from either customers or clients, or concealing important information from the public.

To see if their hypothesis held any water, researchers conducted two experiments. The first featured 344 adult workers. To start, the team asked each person how empowered they typically felt on the job, and to what extent they faced a variety of hindrance stressors. After two weeks, each person answered a series of questions designed to measure both their moral disengagement and how willing they might be to bend the rules a bit and engage in some unethical pro-organizational behavior.

“We found that the more hindrance stressors empowered employees faced, the more likely they were to become morally disengaged and to engage in pro-organizational unethical behavior at work,” Prof. Kirkman explains. “In other words, empowered employees felt pressure to pay back their organization, but when they were thwarted from doing so due to hindrance stressors, they said they would behave unethically in order to do so.”

Would you lie for your boss?

The second experiment, featuring 394 workers, asked each participant to imagine that they were acting on behalf of a fictional employer. The description of this fictional workplace varied from person to person. Some were told of an empowered workforce, while others were not. The number of listed hindrance stressors varied as well. The next phase informed participants they would be entering a contest with a $1 million cash prize for their fictional employer.

The workers were provided with a list of 10 anagrams and told to solve as many as possible. Here’s the catch: None of the anagrams were actually solvable. The entire point was to see who would lie about solving the anagrams.

When workers had an empowering leader but also dealt with lots of hindrance stressors, their odds of cheating increased by 75 percent in comparison to when a participant had a leader who avoided empowering them. However, when employees had an empowering leader and just a few hindrance stressors, their odds of cheating dropped by close to 30 percent in comparison to others who had a leader who did not empower them.

“The take-away message here is clear: empowerment is critical for today’s knowledge economy, but leaders also need to remove the types of obstacles that prevent their employees from exercising their empowerment,” Prof. Kirkman concludes. “And if there are hindrance stressors that management can’t address right away, leadership needs to help employees develop coping strategies to deal with the resulting frustration.”

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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