“Show initiative”… “Think out of the box”… “Take charge of the situation”…

Such phrases are often heard from bosses trying to encourage employees to be more proactive, challenging the status quo and initiating strategic change.

In a workplace situation taking charge means engaging in a constructive effort to change how work is executed. Although this can certainly have its benefits – such as improved work performance – many Asian cultures including China also emphasise the importance of renqing (or face) and harmony; characteristics which may contradict taking charge.

Certain leadership styles, however, may overcome this. An empowering leadership style that enables the sharing of power with an employee through greater decision-making autonomy, expressions of confidence in employees’ capabilities, and removal of obstacles to performance may encourage employees to take charge.

If organisations want to motivate employees to show initiative, promote innovation and improve performance, they must give more attention to the managerial selection process.

How does this occur? And under what circumstances does it occur?

In a collaboration between NUS Business School, Wuhan University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology, my research colleagues and I studied 310 full-time employees in China from 81 work groups with diverse backgrounds such as production and operation, project management, marketing, human resources, finance and administration. We found that when bosses empower staff – for instance by delegating, mentoring, encouraging communication or allowing employees to participate in decision-making – employees become more confident to engage in proactive activities such as finding a solution to a long-term problem.

Confidence and courage

Such confidence in turn translates into taking charge. As this involves changing the status quo, which in itself is potentially risky, having a boost of confidence strengthens employees’ courage to take such risks. Confidence also raises employees’ feelings of control, making them think they are more likely to succeed – crucial elements needed to take charge.

Further, effecting change is no easy task. People are generally averse to change so equipping employees with more confidence goes a long way.

Our research found that when such confidence is absent among Chinese employees, they become less proactive in taking charge. Sometimes, a boss may empower one employee more than another. While such differentiated empowerment may be accepted in certain cultures, it is less well received in China.

Chinese culture is collectivistic, meaning the needs of the group supersede that of the individual for group cohesion. Where empowerment is given selectively, the boss violates the collectivistic norm in a Chinese workplace.

In such situations we found that this had the potential to wipe out the positive effects of instilling confidence from such empowerment.

Power and authority

Chinese culture is also hierarchical, with clear delineations between supervisor and subordinates. But not all Chinese accept power and authority of others easily.

We observed several consequences arising from this notion of hierarchy.

For example, employees who are more accepting of a hierarchical structure – that is, are comfortable with a clear delineation between ranks – benefit more under an empowering leadership but only when that boss empowers selectively.

This means that when a boss delegates decision making to certain employees, which implies that those chosen are higher ranked than those not empowered, employees who prefer hierarchy feel more confident and are more motivated to change their work habits.

However, if the boss empowers everyone, this results in employees becoming less confident in their work, and hence, less willing to take charge.

Interestingly, among individuals who prefer a flatter organisation where most employees are similarly ranked, employees benefit most from a boss who empowers and does so with a broad brush for all employees. However, if the boss empowers selectively employee confidence becomes low, resulting in less proactive behaviour for individuals who prefer no ranking.

In all cases, employees with bosses who do not empower staff have the least level of confidence and are less likely to take initiative and change their work patterns for more productivity.

Critical role

Above all our study demonstrates that leaders who empower play a critical role in motivating employees to take charge.

If organisations want to motivate employees to show initiative, promote innovation and improve performance, they must give more attention to the managerial selection process. Ideally, managers should have the personality that appreciates delegation and seeing employees challenging them.

For managers who are less willing to delegate, research has shown they tend to be very achievement-oriented and experience difficulty in forming relationships with others. In these cases training may be needed to help them delegate while still maintaining their drive for accomplishment.

Organisations would also do well to monitor employee confidence as an indication of how effective managers have been in empowering them. This is somewhat like tracking consumer confidence for feedback on the economy and to anticipate buying behaviour.

Finally in collectivistic societies such as China, our study shows how bosses who empower selectively among employees can erode the benefits of empowerment on confidence, especially among employees who eschew hierarchy.

In these cases we offer two solutions:

First, managers should engage in group-centred empowerment to all employees within that work unit equally to promote more taking charge behaviours.

Second, when managers delegate authority to selected individuals rather than to all employees, they need to be sensitive to employees’ hierarchical preferences. This is because even though empowering differentially may still reap benefits among employees who are willing to accept that there are differences in ranks, it is unlikely to motivate those who dislike such rankings.