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Taking aim at false empowerment: How leaders can build a culture of trust

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By Tony Simons, Professor of Management and Organizational Behavior

Think about the best boss you’ve ever had. What is it that makes them a great leader? Are they known for keeping their word? Or perhaps they value team input and embrace differing opinions when making big decisions. Whatever it is that makes them great, it likely stems from the trust and relationships they’ve built with those around them.

As a professor of management and organizational behavior, my research focuses on the principle of credibility in the workplace, or what I like to call behavioral integrity. Within hospitality, I hypothesized a chain of impact that said when employees feel like their managers live by their word, they’re going to trust their managers more. And when employees trust their managers, they are more likely to be engaged in the work they’re doing, committed to service quality, and loyal to the organization.

Over the last decade or two, studies have confirmed the positive impacts of behavioral integrity on team performance across industries. When a leader is deemed credible by the people they manage, their followers’ performance increases and so does the financial performance of the organization.

The false empowerment epidemic

A focus on behavioral integrity highlights a prevalent form of management malpractice. Over the last several years, leaders have recognized just how important it is for employees to believe in the ideas they’re tasked with executing. And the best way to achieve employee buy-in is by instilling a sense of ownership over the decision-making process. In theory, this practice is meant to increase trust between leaders and subordinates, but when poorly implemented, this management practice can actually do more harm than good.

All too often, leaders will ask for input from their employees only after they’ve already made up their minds. This is what is known as false empowerment, or the tendency for leaders to ask for input when what they really want is buy-in. Although it’s often implemented with good intentions, this poor management practice can have a negative impact on team trust and morale.

My experience and data show that people are rarely fooled by false empowerment. Rather, these techniques tend to backfire when employees perceive them as insincere. People are not foolish; they can tell when their input is valued and when leaders are merely paying them lip service. Over time, this hypocrisy erodes trust between management and employees, creating a negative culture of cynicism.

Taking aim at false empowerment

False empowerment is a destructive behavior that has unfortunately become widespread within organizations today. It is through an ongoing series of studies on the subject that I hope to publicize and reduce the frequency of this management mistake.

Alongside Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, I am working on a project with firefighters from five cities in the United Kingdom to change their leadership approach from a somewhat military style to one that is more adaptable to change. In exchange for data, Amy and I are consulting with the fire department on how to best manage this change process.

Through a series of employee surveys, Amy and I are measuring the level of trust that exists between management and their employees. We utilize these surveys to ask targeted questions regarding how much individual managers are trusted by their teams and why. We are also looking at how credible these managers are perceived to be by asking questions that measure behavioral integrity. Once we’ve collected this data, we’re able to provide detailed feedback to leaders about how they are perceived and how best to build trust and collective adaptability.

Already, the first round of data strongly supports the notion that behavioral integrity must be inherent in the organization to experience the positive effects of empowerment on employee engagement. This is often labeled as an interaction effect; when the impact of one factor on another depends on a third factor. In this case, the impact of empowerment on engagement depends on behavioral integrity such that its effect is negative when behavioral integrity is low and positive when behavioral integrity is high. In other words, empowerment inspires engagement when it is sincere, but it inspires cynicism when it is not.

Trust is more than just another trend

One of the big problems with management philosophies is how quickly they go in and out of style. Organizations are quick to implement new management ideas, which means they are often adopted in a half-hearted way. When companies fall prey to the latest management fashions, they undermine their own credibility by not following through.

In order to avoid this common pitfall, leaders should exercise greater discipline when determining which principles they choose to implement, especially when it comes to empowerment. It is important for leaders to understand that to empower others means to keep less power for yourself. Opening the door to influence is a scary prospect, which is why courage is so important for good leadership.


About Tony Simons, Professor of Management and Organizational Behavior

Headshot of Tony SimonsTony Simons teaches organizational behavior, negotiation, and leadership. His research examines trust—employee trust in leaders, executive team member trust, and trust in supply chain relationships. In particular, Tony has focused on how well people are seen as keeping their word by delivering on their promises and living espoused values. He speaks, trains, consults, and designs surveys for organizations both within and beyond the hospitality industry. Learn more about Tony here,


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