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Empowerment or Bust?

door Frank Walter


Which type of leadership is more effective – directive leadership, where leaders structure subordinates’ tasks, formulate clear directions, and expect compliance, or empowering leadership, where leaders grant considerable autonomy to subordinates, share power, and encourage participation? In popular management folklore, this classic debate has long been resolved. Empowering leadership is better aligned with ideologies of equality and joint decision-making, and its advocates hold that such leadership has distinct and unique advantages for both individual and team performance.

Interestingly, recent research paints a more balanced picture. Natalia Lorinkova and her colleagues have conducted an experiment with 60 teams that had met for the first time to work together on ten rounds of a complex decision-making task. Half of the teams were led by an empowering leader, whereas the other half was led by a directive leader. Take a guess – under which leadership condition did teams perform better? In fact, the researchers measured team performance at two times: half-way through the task (after five rounds), and then again at the very end (after ten rounds) – with dramatically different conclusions. After five rounds, teams with directive leaders achieved much greater performance than teams with empowering leaders. After ten rounds, however, teams with directive leaders had remained at their previous (relatively high) performance levels, with little further increase, whereas teams with empowering leaders had caught up and had even overtaken their directive counterparts.

What is the explanation for this pattern of findings? In teams with an empowering leader, members had to discuss different task approaches, clarify each other’s roles, and learn how to effectively integrate their individual efforts. These time-consuming activities distracted the team members from core tasks during the first rounds. After some time, however, the teams were able to benefit from the routines and creative solutions they had collectively developed and, thus, to ramp up their performance. In teams with a directive leader, by contrast, there were little initial distractions. Leaders provided directions, specified task roles, and facilitated coordination from the outset, enabling their members to focus on the task at hand. At the same time, this leadership prevented team members from developing their own routines and solutions and, thus, put limitations on further performance improvements.

Hence, it seems that both directive and empowering leadership come with unique costs and benefits (see also Martin et al., 2013 ). Empowering leaders sacrifice some short-term wins for increased team learning that, eventually, can boost performance outcomes. Directive leaders, in contrast, sacrifice some long-term learning benefits for quick, immediate task accomplishment. As such, leaders are well-advised to thoroughly analyze specific work situations and adapt their behavior accordingly. If there is time for discussion, experimentation, and trial-and-error, empowering leadership can facilitate lasting performance improvements. For short tasks with little learning potential or tasks with intense time pressure (e.g., immediate crisis resolution), however, directive leadership can enable the team to jump-start with high performance levels. The most effective leaders do not follow a simple “one size fits all” recipe but have a flexible repertoire of leadership behaviors – being directive when necessary and empowering when possible.

(This post is based on: Lorinkova, N. M., Pearsall, M. J., & Sims, H. P. (2013). Examining the differential longitudinal performance of directive versus empowering leadership in teams. Academy of Management Journal, 56, 573-596.)

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