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Monday, January 2, 2023

The hidden dark side of empowering leadership

Dennerlein, T., & Kirkman, B. L. (2022).
The Journal of applied psychology, 107(12), 2220–2242. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0001013


The majority of theory and research on empowering leadership to date has focused on how empowering leader behaviors influence employees, portraying those behaviors as almost exclusively beneficial. We depart from this predominant consensus to focus on the potential detriments of empowering leadership for employees. Drawing from the social cognitive theory of morality, we propose that empowering leadership can unintentionally increase employees' unethical pro-organizational behavior (UPB), and that it does so by increasing their levels of moral disengagement. Specifically, we propose that hindrance stressors create a reversing effect, such that empowering leadership increases (vs. decreases) moral disengagement when hindrance stressors are higher (vs. lower). Ultimately, we argue for a positive or negative indirect effect of empowering leadership on UPB through moral disengagement. We find support for our predictions in both a time-lagged field study (Study 1) and a scenario-based experiment using an anagram cheating task (Study 2). We thus highlight the impact that empowering leadership can have on unethical behavior, providing answers to both why and when the dark side of empowering leadership behavior occurs.

Managerial Implications

Leaders should be more aware of contextual features in the workplace before using empowering leadership. If employees are likely to experience hindrance stressors when empowered, leaders will need to either (a) use less empowering leadership or (b) reduce effects of hindrance stressors. Regarding the latter, leaders can become sponsors to remove obstacles impeding goal achievement.  If bureaucracy is preventing empowered employees from reaching their goals, leaders can reduce red tape to allow more freedom.Leaders can also engage with other leaders to organize a concerted effort to remove hindrance stressors. As noted, Conger and Kanungo’s (1988) theoretical model includes removing factors that lead to feelings of powerlessness—many of which pertain to hindrance stressors, such as a lack of role clarity, a bureaucratic climate, or high levels of formalization—as a first step in the empowerment process distinct from behaviors leaders use to empower employees. Yet, applications of empowering leadership often overlook this critical element (Argyris, 1998), which, based on our findings, is problematic. If hindrance stressors cannot be removed, leaders could help employees develop better coping strategies in the face of the frustration they are likely to experience when their goal achievement is thwarted. Coping strategies could include employee support groups, leadership development, or stress management techniques, such as mindfulness (Sutcliffe et al., 2016).

The full citation is lengthy, but here it is:

Dennerlein, T., & Kirkman, B. L. (2022). The hidden dark side of empowering leadership: The moderating role of hindrance stressors in explaining when empowering employees can promote moral disengagement and unethical pro-organizational behavior. The Journal of applied psychology, 107(12), 2220–2242. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0001013