Which Leaders Will Psychologically Empower their Followers?

Topic(s): leadership, motivation, personality
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2020)
Article: To Thine Own (Empowered) Self Be True: Aligning Social Hierarchy Motivation and Leader Behavior
Authors: H.W. Lee, N.A. Hays, R.E. Johnson
Reviewed by: Jacqueline Marhefka

Psychological empowerment describes feeling motivated to shape the work context. It helps employees feel more committed, capable, and adaptable at work, and it also leads to more effective learning and enhanced performance. Leaders play a big role in promoting psychological empowerment in their employees by granting them more autonomy and choice in how they do their work. 

Leaders tend to facilitate empowerment in employees particularly when they feel empowered themselves because they are motivated to shape their work context, including their employees. Some empowered leaders influence employees by using autonomy-supporting behaviors (encouraging employees to set their own goals and participate in decision-making). However, other empowered leaders utilize more controlling behaviors to exert influence (providing instructions and expecting compliance) that would decrease empowerment in employees. So why do some empowered leaders facilitate empowerment in followers, but others do not?


To answer this question, new research (Lee, Hays & Johnson, 2020) examined the influence of leaders’ prestige motivation and dominance motivation. Three studies supported that although psychologically empowered leaders tend to exert influence over employees, whether they do so with more autonomy-supporting behaviors or more controlling behaviors depends on leaders’ prestige and dominance motivation.

Prestige motivation describes the desire for respect and admiration that is given voluntarily by followers. When empowered leaders are also high in prestige motivation, they tend to exert influence through autonomy-supporting behaviors such as sharing responsibility and decision-making authority with employees. Employees become more empowered when this approach gives them more ownership over their work. In addition, this sharing of responsibility demonstrates concern about employee needs, perspectives, and satisfaction, which leads to greater respect for the leader in return.

On the other hand, dominance motivation describes the desire for authority over others and using control to maintain subordination. When empowered leaders are high in dominance motivation, they tend to exert influence by maintaining control over their resources, including their authority and decision-making power. Dominance motivated leaders may pressure subordinates into following exact instructions and use external forces like rewards to influence employee behavior. This controlling behavior from leaders reduces employees’ ability to feel psychologically empowered in their work.


As the workplace shifts to more flexible organizational designs with greater autonomy, it is important for employees to leverage psychological empowerment. Leaders play a special role, in that their own empowerment can affect their followers’ empowerment. Whether leaders facilitate or hinder followers’ empowerment depends on their own individual motivations for prestige and dominance.

Therefore, organizations would do well to consider prestige and dominance motivation when promoting or hiring for leadership roles. Though both forms of motivation are likely to result in advancement, it is important that organizations are aware of the potential controlling behavior from psychologically empowered and dominance-motivated leaders and discourage these behaviors before they occur.


Lee, H. W., Hays, N. A., & Johnson, R. E. (2020). To thine own (empowered) self be true: Aligning social hierarchy motivation and leader behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.