Article: Harvard Business Review – When Empowering Employees Works, and When It Doesn’t by Allan Lee, Sara Willis, and Amy Wei Tian. March 2, 2018


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Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to explore questions about business and business practice. In the process of examining them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but one that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects. And by the way, if you want to learn more about how to work more closely with us, stay tuned at the end of the show.

I am Zac Swartout, and always with me is Carol Sanford, our inhouse positive contrarian. Who responds to big and hard questions with a radically different take.

Hey Carol

Carol: Hi Zac

Zac: We got an article for a second opinion from a listener, James Chappell, Founder & CEO at BEMi Consulting, in Osaka, Japan.
He wants a second opinion on empowerment as a concept. He sent an article from Harvard Business Review: When Empowering Employees Works, and When It Doesn’t by Allan Lee, Sara Willis, and Amy Wei Tian. March 2, 2018. The article itself examines the idea of employee empowerment as a means of motivating employees. James was curious about the concept, concerned about its recent applications particularly in Japanese work culture, and wants to know our opinion.

Carol: We do have a Second Opinion. In fact, this article lets us open up the conversation generally about how to work with people. The article was in the subject arena of motivation. So this article is targeted at motivation and how to be more effective. I think we take it on as an example of at least four errors in how humans and living systems work. What do you say?

Zac: Great. Let’s get started with a quick overview
So Lee, Willis, and Tian performed a meta analysis of 105 studies encapsulating the work of 30,000 employees in 30 counties all around the concept of empowerment and whether or not it’s associated with strong job performance, whether it had bearing on different types of performance – like routine work, creativity, or citizenship behavior, and tested several mechanisms for tracking whether increased job performance was correlated to increased feelings of empowerment and trust for one’s leaders. And lastly they looked at employee job performance across national cultures, industries and levels of employee experience to see whether or not leaders who utilized empowerment as a strategy actually influenced job performance.

Carol: What do they recommend based on their findings?

Zac: Right, so they had 4 key findings:
Empowering leaders had more creative and helpful employees – in other words, employees seemed to generate more novel ideas, while also feeling a sense of autonomy and trust with their leaders.
Feeling empowered doesn’t always boost routine task performance – with this finding empowering staff with too much or too little decision making responsibilities often led to employees negatively perceiving the act of empowerment while helping very little with everyday work.
Some employees respond to empowering leadership more than others – across cultures, type of business, and different employee demographics – their research came up with surprising results about different categories of people when they looked at Eastern versus Western companies, asset heavy versus asset light companies, and longer versus shorter tenured employees.
Empowerment is about supporting employees – Supporting employees using empowerment while it can boost motivation and creativity, can also create additional burdens like stress that might hurt their routine performance.

Carol: It is pretty easy for us to see how they are operating within a paradigm they cannot see. How do you see that and what difference does it make to leaders and teams that they are in that paradigm and giving advice from it?

Zac: Good question. So let’s look at the core of the article as a starting point and where this idea sits relative to how they see humans – what we call ontological conceit. First off this article is about humans and their motivation. The article starts from the idea that motivation needs to come from the outside of an employee, from a leader. The paradigm they are using here we call arrest disorder. It’s sourced from the idea that the world (and humans) are constantly tending towards disorder and we need to put restraints in place to keep it from spinning into chaos. So while the authors are well intentioned here with wanting to support autonomous thinking and trustworthy leaders, the recommendations they are making actually undermine how to build self managing, self motivating employees.

Carol: What I see when I look at this article and in fact most of Harvard Business is class one errors. Zac, what can you share with our listeners about this concept?

Zac: This kind of error is called a type one error (false positive) and is sometimes called an error of the first kind. In terms of, say, a courtroom example, a type one error corresponds to convicting an innocent defendant based on false ideas.

Carol: Yes. This happens in hypothesis testing when the null hypothesis is true but rejected. Or using a false hypothesis as the foundational truth. A class one error is a general statement or default position used where there is no relationship between hypothesis and examination process or the findings. But that is not discerned most often.

Zac, what is the implication of this for human and natural systems and the challenges we face today?

Zac: Well in short I think you get a lot of the issues you see today. We seem to be living in some kind of epistemological crisis where we all seem to be struggling to understand what is true. Meanwhile, most of our work systems are all sourced from the arrest disorder world view that is designed to intentionally undermine independent thought. Therefore, there’s a class one error at the core of the article’s premise. What the authors, and I think most people, want is people to be self motivating and trusting of the people around them at work. But they are using thinking that actually degrades that idea.
But Carol, how do you see this relating to empowerment and James’s question?

Carol: There are many class one errors in management science that are evident in this article and most articles in business journals and books. Let’s take on two of them and use empowerment as a false start and therefore erroneous finish.

Zac. You mean, like “humans are mammals and rat-like and can be and have to be directed from the outside?” I saw this all the time in health care. It was like there was a lot of talk of empowerment, but really they ran into the exact same problems with these overlooked class one errors, and as result, none of this work really manifested like they’d hoped.

Carol: That idea comes from applying the study of machines, including artificial intelligence to the study of humans. But started with classical physics being applied to life. Newton saw everything that is alive as static and separated, unconnected, like rocks in a pond. Everything is, well, a THING. It is an object to be studied and to be affected by some external force.
Zac, Where is that classical physics paradigm playing out here?

Zac: So let’s look at a different aspect: categories. As Carol said the Newtonian view saw things as separated. So categories are an efficient and classically Newtonian way to dissect things. So if we look at finding number 3, the authors looked at different categories of people as I mentioned before, Western versus Eastern, working in asset heavy versus asset light companies, and longer versus shorter tenured employees, to try to find some data driven pattern that could then be generalized to that group. This is the atomization of people at work. But Carol, what is the alternative hypothesis?

Carol: There are a few. Life is composed of self-determining living wholes that have agency and aspiration. Persons, lifeshed, planets and wholes within wholes. Like people within families, within neighborhoods, within communities, within natural systems in regions. Humans and life are not in need of external input to function, thrive and evolve. But we default to that idea because of some erroneous thinking that is hundreds of years old and still taught in school.

Zac: You mean, like Newton’s idea of closed systems, which is truly a different place to start than the idea of each human is a whole, nested in an organization where each can be and is self-determining. The issue is, each person has power in their own agency but we don’t bother to develop it. In fact, if I follow this article’s advice as a leader, I actually actively undermine that. For example, the article looks at Western versus Eastern cultures and offers broad generalizations about those cultures, rather than looking at a specific, living employee, nested inside a company, inside a larger system that weaves through cultures. This abstraction and generalization I think, leads quickly to stereotyping.

Carol: We tend to try to do what I call ameliorating at this point. That is we started with false assumptions, a class one error, and now we are in a pickle with layers of people who have to cascade down power like animals in cages who are not allowed to move outside their box. The sad part is that getting rid of hierarchies does nothing of any significance to awaken unfolding potential because it is still working from the same class one error but taking on the external structure thinking. That is the problem of holacracy, or at least empowering people based on handed off authority.

Zac: When really what they need to do is start from the first principle, the truth about the working of reality from a living systems view. Humans are examples of living systems that can think for themselves, and can develop that capacity further and exercise it in a team or group setting in service of something for customers, not their boss or the business unit.

Carol: The accompanying class one error is that humans have no inner processing. They are only external objects. You can see that in this article as well, I think Zac. Do you see that playing out here?

Zac: Yea I see it playing out the 3rd point around routine task performance. As the authors looked at the research, they saw employees as “followers” for whom a determining factor was “how they perceived their leaders’ behavior”. It’s as though employees are vessels with no independent thought and need the leader to role model how they are to behave. Carol, where did that error start?

Carol: I see it as a case of one false idea being used to build the next theory, never seeing that the foundation was faulty. We just said that Newton made everything THINGS. Nothing was seen as dynamic, alive and independently able to express agency and get what it needed to do that from the system in which it was embedded. This was implemented by businesses with the help of Frederick Taylor and Scientific Management from the 1880s to the first two decades of the 1900s.
Zac: But the class one error, of humans as machines, did not seem to go away even when the active teaching of it has dissipated. The idea that humans are “like” machines, was used as a metaphor for generations and it is still here in this article. The metaphor is doing its work without being taught as a fact. Humans are still seen as machines by the assumption of external management needed. The key to everything being a thing is all that is available to be studied and managed….. in other words—there is no internal self-effective process.

Carol: That is the big addition that came next but could not have been so easily adopted without Newton and Taylor’s ideas of humans as things that can be studied and managed by others, not themselves. The next idea came with the ramping up of the Industrial Revolution into large scale production.

Zac: It seems crazy that people were treated not like animals even, but like machines. In the early days of the industrial revolution, large numbers of people died, were injured and ultimately seen as cogs in wheels to be easily replaced. And that seems to pervade much of businesses thinking. But then unions arose and new humanist theories of motivation about making a better workplace came in to improve productivity. But you don’t motivate machines, so how did we get to motivation?

Carol: Happy to answer that question, but where do these ideas seem to be still underlying the theory in our article here? And to be offering amelioration for the class one error of humans are machines?

Zac: Sure so let’s look at something that seems kinda obvious on its face but might have slipped past without a second or third reading here. Why do employees need to feel empowered in the first place? What is it in the fundamental design of work systems that has them feeling untrusting of leadership? Already the authors are trying to solve a problem (workers feel unmotivated and don’t trust management). So instead reconsidering the frame they are using, they pull together research to try to, not reimagine how routine work functions, but ameliorate the surface level problems associated with the work design. But Carol, share with us all the logic train that leads to our second class one error in your mind.

Carol: Now, how did we get here, well, humans stopped being passive things. They organized. They spoke their minds. They became passively aggressive by just not always doing what they were told. It was a disaster for the rising class of industrialists like the so-called robber barons. Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D Rockefeller. They were being slowed by recalcitrant workers. Enter John Watson who said he could teach these men how to manage their people as easily as they did machines. We know his study of rats that created behavioral psychology, but less well known is the class one error he introduced.

Zac: Right, so the idea here is that there is no inner processing in any being. If everyone is a thing, then there is no thinking, feeling, guessing, projecting into the future. Everything we can consider about people we have on the surface and can manipulate. That was introduced at the same time as Taylorism declined. John Watson and behaviorism was rising

Carol: Watson solidified the idea because he needed it to be true for his entrepreneurial venture to raise capital. He was a psychologist at Johns Hopkins and wanted to build a lab to continue his post-doctoral work on animal behaviorism having been influenced by Pavlov of the dogs who learn to salivate at the ringing of the dinner bell. His work was built on studying by sensory observation, the effects of particular manipulations of animals to do your bidding, Particularly, that it is required because there is nothing going to motivate people inside their own experience. They need external stimulus to which they respond. Then you cement that rewarding them and punish them when they don’t follow up with the desired response. Does this sound familiar?

Zac: And If I remember right, he promised the industrialists he can make humans as manipulatable as machines. The titans of industry were so desperate, they gave him the buckets of cash he requested in order to set up his lab. And, as an outcome, he gave us behavior modification of humans as though they are rats. It seems to me that this idea has not waned in management practice even after almost one hundred years. It is clearly a class one error that has been disproven and yet I learned this is how to manage in business school. You need only look at rewards, compensation structures, performance bonuses, and the like.

Carol: It has not changed, even after decades of disproving the class one error. The Humanist school of psychology for one has torn down that error from the insider out (pun intended) but the Behavior School is the dominant paradigm in all organization, education and parenting theory. It will take a few hundred more years to dislodge it if we survive it.
Zac, What is your final comment on this article and our class one errors approach to it? And what do you recommend to these authors and HBR readers as your second opinion?

Zac: Well I think we are getting people on a better path towards discernment here. But I’d recommend going up a level into a regenerative or living systems view of humans and looking at motivation from that frame, at a specific person, nested, trying to contribute to a specific living customer in their life. I think what you’d find is radically different. Add anything Carol?

Carol: Well, I think my summary is that the reason we do Business Second Opinion is to teach people to question, because we take for gospel so much of what we’re taught in school, by our parents, churches, our military, and so much of it is based on class one errors. If we want to get back to having clarity and the ability to make sense out of those things you mentioned at the beginning where no one knows what to believe, we each have to use that capacity to think and discern on everything we read and everything we hear. Go back and find out it’s source, it’s foundation. If you find an article which you are really curious about, like James Chappell sent us this one, then let us know your question and send along the article (email We’d love to give you our opinion.

Zac: We have several new learning communities to do this kind of thinking starting in January. A Community of Board members-For profit, not for profits and hybrid boards of directors or advisory. A new cohort of Business Teams who engage in Regenerative Strategic Thinking. A way to use Systems Thinking in developing strategy. Plus an on-going community for Educators in all domains. We still have a few seats in the women entrepreneurs community, Email us if you are interested.

Carol: We need your help. Recommend an article or business practice on which you want a second opinion. Thanks James for your offer this time. You can email us at or find us on Twitter @biz_second_opinion Or, Donate to support production costs. On Business Second Opinion Webpage.

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Zac: This has been Business Second Opinion


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Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to answer questions about business and business practice, you may not know you need to ask. But we believe you should be asking for the benefit of your understanding and your business’s ethics and practice. In the process of answering them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects.



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