When Allowing Decision Latitude Can Backfire - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #212

When Allowing Decision Latitude Can Backfire

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The best leaders today avoid micromanaging their employees, recognizing that giving employees job autonomy and decision latitude — allowing employees to make decisions concerning their work — will result in greater motivation and better performance. New research, however, shows that too much decision latitude can backfire. Instead of being viewed as effective and conscientious leaders, the research shows managers who give their employees too much discretion and freedom in decisions and managing their work will be viewed as not being conscientious about their work.


Most leaders now recognize (at least theoretically if not always in practice) the ineffectiveness of the old school top-down, command-and-control leadership style. The knowledge worker of the information age is not going to be satisfied with simply obeying orders from above. The best managers avoid micromanaging their employees, giving them instead the freedom to make decisions and manage their own work. Past research has confirmed the common wisdom that such decision latitude results in greater employee motivation and better performance.

In their research, however, Columbia Professor Sheena Iyengar and former Columbia doctoral student Roy Chua (now an assistant professor at Harvard Business School), shift the focus from how employees feel about being given greater responsibility and freedom to how they feel about the managers who were giving them that freedom. This shift in research focus reveals that the motivational and performance benefits of giving employees greater freedom in decision-making and managing one’s work are not as simple or linear as originally assumed. Instead, too much decision latitude can backfire on the manager.

Specifically, Iyengar and Chua demonstrate that employees’ perception of the personality and leadership skills of their managers rise as the managers give them more and more latitude in decision-making. Employees view managers who give them such freedom as more agreeable and conscientious, while managers who give them less freedom and decision latitude are perceived as pushy or as micromanagers

These positive feelings hold true only up to a certain point, however. At some level of decision latitude, according to the research, employees start to wonder whether instead of witnessing an agreeable and effective leader who trusts his or her employees, they are witnessing a leader who simply doesn’t care. Too much decision latitude changes the perceived motivation behind the granting of the freedom.

In sum, there is an inverted U-shape relationship between decision latitude and leadership perceptions. As explained by the researchers, “Managers who give employees moderate decision latitude are perceived as more effective leaders than those who give little or no decision latitude, [while] managers who give employees high decision latitude are perceived as less effective leaders than those who give moderate decision latitude.”


Iyengar and Chua have uncovered the Goldilocks effect of decision latitude: Employees perceive managers who give too little decision latitude or too much decision latitude as poor leaders. Managers who are held in the highest esteem are those who give employees just the right amount of freedom and latitude.

Through this research, professors Iyengar and Chua have introduced “moderation” to the conversation of 21st century leadership — a new element that has specific implications for managers:

  1. Keep empowering your employees. This research does not reject the benefits of decision latitude. Employees clearly perceived leaders who empower them as more effective than leaders who, for whatever reasons, refused to empower them.
  2. Empower your employees for the right reason — because employees won’t be fooled. Effective leaders empower employees because they know that such empowerment is best for the individual business unit and/or the overall organization. The most successful organizations have employees who are engaged, and that engagement is acquired through decision latitude. However, leaders who themselves are not engaged or are simply looking to pass on their work to subordinates should not fool themselves into thinking that an empowerment screen will hide their motivations. One important lesson from this research is that employees discern the motivations — both negative and positive — behind empowerment.
  3. Even if you’re empowering employees for the right reason… don’t go too far. There are tasks, responsibilities and decisions that employees expect to be taken by their managers. The desire to empower and motivate employees should not lead managers to “push down” to their employees too many decisions. The result will not be employees who are appreciative of the responsibility and confidence shown by their managers, but rather employees who are wary of the motivations of their leaders.

Professors Iyengar and Chua have proven once again the wisdom of the saying, “too much of a good thing.” The old reliable chestnut applies even to empowering employees.



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Idea conceived

October 1, 2011

Idea posted

Sep 2013
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