When to lead by empowerment vs. When to be directive

By Heather Harreld

Empowering leadership — the practice of sharing power with subordinates and allowing them to collectively make decisions — has long been touted as better for performance than a more directive approach. But is an empowering leadership style always better when managing teams?

It depends on the nature and timeline of the project, according to new research from Matthew Pearsall, assistant professor of organizational behavior at UNC Kenan-Flagler. While researchers have looked at the effects of both empowering and directive leadership styles separately, Pearsall wanted to directly compare the approaches at the same time. He studied 60 teams engaged in a command and control simulation and found that although empowering leadership offers long-term benefits for teams, it comes with short-term costs and performance delays.

As a result, he recommends that leaders managing a team on a short timeline consider a more directive style, which is characterized by providing clear directions and expectations regarding compliance with instructions.

“In short-term projects and emergent situations, a directive style may be best because teams need to be able to immediately perform at a high level and cannot afford the performance delays from learning associated with empowerment,” he said. “But, when teams have an extended timeline or must be able to adapt to complex and changing environments over time, an empowering leadership style may work best.”

Directive teams more quickly ramp up performance, while empowered teams typically experience initial performance delays as they learn about the competencies of others on the team and take steps to collectively make decisions and coordinate their efforts. However, the performance of directive teams eventually plateaus, and they are overtaken by their counterparts on empowered teams, who continue to improve their performance over time. But it is important that managers do not misinterpret these findings to conclude that a directive leadership style is beneficial early and that they later should switch to an empowering style as teams progress on a project. While there may be some advantages to combining the two leadership styles, Pearsall notes, the benefits of empowering leadership emerge because team members develop effective processes for learning how to solve problems collectively. As a result, empowered teams may not be able to garner the benefits of improved performance over time without first suffering the initial performance delays associated with learning.

Key management take-aways from Pearsall’s work include:

• Empowering leaders encourage team members to engage in role exchanges and collective investigation in the early life of the team as they learn about the project or task environment and each other’s expertise to foster routines to coordinate their behaviors.

• Because of the critical role of team learning in empowered teams, managers who seek to adopt an empowered leadership style also should focus their efforts on facilitating team learning and information sharing.

• Leaders of empowered teams need to encourage risk taking and experimentation to spur the development of a psychologically safe team environment.

• Empowering leaders who genuinely value the input of their team members and allow them to fail without repercussions may be best able to cultivate an autonomous learning environment.

• Leaders who attempt to fake an empowering manner without any real willingness to sacrifice their own authority may be thought of as disingenuous, and the team may never develop to the levels needed for learning. This post can originally be seen on UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Blog and from the latest version of UNC Business magazine. To read the entire issue, download the iPad app.