They are both from the IESE Business School and the Howe College of Management.

The health crisis kicked the pace of change into high gear, even though the modern workplace was at an inflection point spurred by technological and cultural changes. Even the savviest business minds wondered what the future of work would look like after the explosion of remote work and the rise of the digital nomad.

It seems like a good bet that the future of work will involve more freedom for workers, with the majority of them not wanting to return to the office full time, as employee ages drop. Many large companies are adapting quickly. Employees who have a sense of freedom and are committed to their jobs tend to be more productive.

Is it a good thing that more autonomy is a thing? Not sure. Bad behavior can be caused by it. The future of work will be affected by the double-edged sword of employee empowerment.

We observed an unexpected dark side of empowering employees at odds with the conventional wisdom that empowering leadership is beneficial. Employees can disengage and behave unethically if empowerment is given to them. If organizations remove obstacles to employees’ success before giving them more freedom, these potential negative outcomes of empowering leadership can be avoided and, in fact, reversed.

The cost of freedom.

What leads employees to act unethically? hindrance stressors include interference and obstacles that stand in the way of work achievements, when unethical behavior is likely to occur. There are many examples of red tape, toxic office politics, and muddled requests from managers.

Our research found that if several of these hindrances are present in employees’ jobs at the time they are encouraged to act in self-directed ways, the combination of leaders’ empowering behavior and job stressors can produce more unethical behavior due to the employees feeling less bound by organizational rules. The autonomy these employees have been given by their companies may make them feel especially committed, or even indebted, to their companies, leading to unscrupulous behavior that helps their organizations hide damaging information from clients.


The study we conducted with nearly 400 employees showed the potentially ill effects of empowerment driving employees to cheat and disengage. Those exposed to a leader who was empowering were 75% more likely to lie about their puzzles than those who were not. It can wreak havoc on an employee’s moral code if self-direction and hindrance stressors are combined.

There is a better way to power.

The bad influence of stressors can lead to better employee empowerment. Most would assume that this can be beneficial. It can’t simply involve telling workers you trust them to work remotely on a schedule of their own design, thrusting a big project on them, and seeing what happens.

Managers need to be aware of the obstacles they put in front of employees. Before their workforce gets more independence and self-direction, leaders should work to remove hindrance stressors. The necessary support should be given to employees. Delaying employee empowerment until stressors can be removed is a good way to do it.

A big payoff can be delivered by Empowerment and reduced stress. The people who were told they faced no stressors were almost 30% less likely to cheat than the people who weren’t told. This shows that empowering leadership can reduce unethical behavior.

When it comes to empowering employees, leaders need to be aware that they have a double-edged sword that can result in undesirable outcomes. They need to consider the wider context in which employees find themselves. They will be rewarded with high-performing employees if they do so.