How to Empower Employees With the Illusion of Control

Last Updated Apr 16, 2009 11:32 AM EDT

With the specter of layoffs currently haunting so many companies, how can managers keep staff morale from plummeting? By helping employees feel as if they have a degree of control, even in uncontrollable situations.

According to a study published in Psychological Science, the more power people have, the more power they think they have. Like a gambler on a winning streak who believes he can affect the cards being dealt, powerful individuals' feelings of control often extend to circumstances in which they are helpless to determine the outcomes.

"Our research found that power led to perceived control over outcomes that were uncontrollable or unrelated to power," says Niro Sivanathan from the London Business School, who co-conducted the study. "Power predicted control over future outcomes that were outside one's span of control."

Other researchers on the project were Nathanael Fast and Deborah Gruenfeld from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Adam Galinsky from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

When illusions of power are good
While much of the report focuses on the negative consequences of the hubris that can result from illusions of too much power, it also shows that a little bit of delusion can be a good thing. One finding of the study was that people who are confident in their powers are much more likely to try to achieve difficult or impossible tasks. So managers dealing with departments that have been slashed in half, with more cutbacks imminent, may be able to encourage remaining employees by helping them feel more in control.

Four ways to empower employees
In order to make employees feel more powerful, try the following:

  • 1. Avoid micromanaging and show confidence in staff members' abilities to perform their jobs well
  • 2. Give praise; this is one of the quickest ways to boost employee confidence
  • 3. At meetings, focus less on the big picture of your business' health and more on actions employees can take to improve the state of the company
  • 4. Ask for staff feedback and help with problem solving
Giving employees the illusion of power does not suggest that managers should be dishonest with staff or paint an unrealistically optimistic picture about the future of their jobs. However, finding even small ways to give employees more control can help shift their focus away from the uncontrollable.

Keys image by Flickr user HandsLive, CC 2.0

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.