August 23, 2012 | Research Feature

Tiptoeing Toward Freedom

To be effective leaders, managers must offer employees the right amount of choice and flexibility.

The perennial question of how much power and control a manager should share with staff has always been a difficult one. The question is even more pressing in today’s workplace, given the potential of technology to offer employees more job autonomy than ever before.

Past research has shown that more freedom is better: increased decision-making power leads to greater satisfaction and job performance because staff feel more in control of their work. But how does increased freedom — and decision latitude, or a broader array of choices — affect employees’ perceptions of their managers as leaders?

Professor Sheena Iyengar and doctoral candidate Roy Chua created two lab experiments to test how increased job autonomy and decision latitude affected how managers are perceived. In the experiments, participants were presented with a hypothetical work scenario in which a manager offered them greater or fewer choices in how to accomplish their work. For example, a software engineer offered two, four, or six different programming languages to complete a computer project. Afterward, participants were questioned about the manager’s leadership qualities. Additionally, a separate survey was given to a group of MBA students asking about how much job autonomy their past managers had given them in each work situation and how they perceived each of the managers.

Through the three studies, Iyengar and Chua found that striking a balance is key: more decision-making power for employees increased perceived leadership effectiveness and agreeableness of managers, but too much freedom caused managers’ images as effective leaders to suffer because they were perceived as being less conscientious.

“Managers who don’t give their employees choices in how to do their work are perceived as dictators or authoritarians,” Iyengar says. “And managers who offer too much freedom are perceived as warm but incompetent.”

Iyengar explains that there is a happy medium: managers who offer employees limited choices in their approach to work — some options, but not too many — are perceived as warm and competent. “Employees think of those managers as effective leaders because they feel that they have spent time thinking about their goals and have been more strategic about what choices they want their employees to contemplate,” Iyengar says. “In that situation, they think of the choices their managers have given them as empowering.”

Sheena Iyengar is the S. T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division and research director and a senior scholar at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Roy Chua, Sheena Iyengar

"Perceiving freedom givers: Effects of granting decision latitude on personality and leadership perceptions"

View abstract/citation  Download PDF  

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