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:
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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