The Role of Leaders in Employee Engagement

Historically, frontline managers and supervisors have been on-the-hook for employee motivation: wielding carrots or  sticks depending on their style and on the organization’s cultural norms.

But now, frontline leaders are responsible for something more complex and unwieldy: employee engagement.

It’s common for engagement surveys to ask staff to assess the leadership skills of their managers. Managers, too, are responsible for “action planning” or taking steps to improve employee engagement between surveys. In some organizations, annual bonuses to leaders depend on the outcome of the engagement survey.

But how instrumental are managers to the process of employee engagement? Surprisingly, the research on this question is sparse.

A lit review on the topic concluded that the link between leadership and engagement had not been investigated much (Carasco-Saul, Kim & Kim, 2015) .

A study on the link between engagement and leadership in the Job Demands Resource model of engagement cites just 12 previous examples—all primarily focused on measuring the impact of transformational leadership on engagement (Schaufeli, 2015).

The findings of the Schaufeli study on leadership in the JD-R model  warrant our attention.

In the conventional presentation of the JD-R, leadership is not called out, rather it’s understood to be one of many possible job resources that influence engagement. Schaufeli isolates leadership as a variable and find that the the connection between leader behaviors and engagement is not what the researcher, or many of us, would have predicted.

The hypothesis under scrutiny proposes that managers impact engagement directly by satisfying the psychological needs of their employees—specifically for relatedness, competence, and belonging.

However, the research finds that while the impact of leadership on outcomes (employee commitment and performance behavior) is significant the impact of leadership on engagement is indirect and dependent on the ability of the leader to make the necessary job resources available to the team.

As the author explains: “Instead of having direct effects on burnout and work engagement, it seems that the effect of engaging leadership is exclusively indirect. It creates a more favorable job environment, which, in its turn, reduces burnout and fosters work engagement and work outcomes.”

This is just one study, and, from a practitioner’s perspective, one might ask well so what’s new here? Do these findings in any way affect how we think or practice engagement in real life?

Perhaps not, but I think the findings of this study raise a few interesting questions worth considering. I’ve been thinking about the following, this week:

1. Are leaders spending too much time on psychological job resources, e.g. trust and team building, and not enough time marshaling job resources that are lower down on Maslow’s pyramid—such equipment that works, supportive work schedules, and pay?

2. How do frontline leaders perceive their role in employee engagement and what can organizations do better to support them in being effective?

3. What are the job resources that support high engagement of frontline leaders? After all, it’s unlikely that disengaged managers can lead engaged teams.

As always, I welcome your comments on this or anything else related to how we flourish at work.

Engagement Through the Lens of the Job-Demands Resource Model

As I’ve explored in more detail in an earlier post, employee engagement is being conceptualized various ways by researchers and survey providers.

In this short post, I’m going to take a quick look at the Job Demands Resources (JD-R) model, which is emerging as a frontrunner for understanding and managing engagement.



One of the JD-R model’s obvious strengths is that it presents engagement as just one element in an process that also includes job demands, job resources, and that results in outcomes–in other words, it’s a representation of work that anyone would find familiar.

Another interesting component of the model is that it includes a representation of a stress process, where a misalignment of job demands and resources adds up to burnout. While the focus of my work is on engagement, publication of research on negative states such as burnout outpaces research on positive psychological states 17-1 (1). The JD-R model asks us to consider the relationship between positive and negative states and their antecedents together.

The basis for engagement are personal resources such as ability, self-efficacy and resiliency and also on-the-job resources such as leadership, social support, job control, professional development, etc. In subsequent iterations of the model, leadership has been pulled out as a separate variable, but I’ll save that discussion for another post.  The results of engagement are positive outcomes such as high performance, empathy, and commitment.

This model has been tested in various countries and in longitudinal studies with findings validating the assumption of causation between resources and engagement and engagement and positive outcomes. The model is also being used as HR management tool in more than 130 organizations (2).

1. Schaufeli, W. B., & Bakker, A. B. (2003). UWES–Utrecht work engagement scale: test manual. Unpublished Manuscript: Department of Psychology, Utrecht University8.

2. Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2007). The job demands-resources model: State of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 22(3), 309-328. doi:


Empathy and Work Engagement

A colleague played this video to a roomful of HR folks yesterday. The result: not a dry eye in the house. I’m choking back tears only to look over at my coworker who has them streaming down her face. Not your usual day in the office by any means.

Produced by Cleveland Clinic for internal use, this brilliant video went viral by accident several years ago. After I recovered from watching it, I started to think about empathy and other positive prosocial emotions as potential building blocks of work engagement. Something, I’d like to explore in future posts. Meanwhile, let this move you.


Post-Modern Times: Charlie Chaplin, Taylorism, and Employee Engagement

You don’t have to have seen Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie Modern Times to be familiar with its iconic scene. You know the one in which the Little Tramp, Chaplin’s embodiment of the hapless Everyman, is sucked up into the gears of an enormous industrial machine.



Here, courtesy of a 1936 silent film, is a metaphor so accurate that it hardly feels like comedy for a century of workplace dynamics. And not just on the assembly line.  Because whether a metal worker, nurse, marketing manager, or software engineer, you’re no doubt familiar with work as an environment where people are pushed around–or, as is the case with some orgnaizations, left to rot–by forces far beyond their control.  (If your experience of wor, generally speaking, is very different from what I’m describing above, please be sure to leave a note in the comments.)

The question I’m exploring in this blog, and in my research, is: Can we, now, in our post-modern times, and in the midst of a new industrial revolution, on the precipice of AI, stem the loss of human agency at work?

In an earlier post, I wrote about employee engagement as a popular empowerment scheme. Is engagement an effective tool for employee empowerment? Let’s start with the hypothesis that it is. An important data point to understand right away then are the power dynamics of engagement programs.

Modern Times has something to show us about workplace improvement schemes in another memorable scene. Roll the Billows Feeding Machine.

The Feeding Machine is a funny invention. It’s also an on-point send up of the practice of scientific management.

First espoused by Frederick Winslow Taylor at the beginning of the last century, scientific management’s goal was to make the workplace and workers more efficient. The solution involved removing individual discretion in favor of the systematization of work tasks and training. In a Taylorized world, managers and a new breed of support staff, management consultants, decided what people had to do, how best ti do it, and then trained workers on these norms. It marked the birth of organizational effectiveness.

The Billows Machine applies scientific management to optimizing lunch producing disasterous and absurd results.

While the principles of scientific management seem far removed from employee satisfaction metrics of engagement surveys, the two approaches may have more in common than we would want to admit. Here are some obvious similarities:

  • A trendy idea driven by management consultants.
  • Embraced, at least initially in the case of scientific management, as a progressive approach to the workplace.
  • Seen as a solution that promotes productivity in changing times.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of engagement as a model, or cynical about its implementation. Rather, I’m interested in effective engagement models—those that truly inspire people to be their best selves at work.

Let’s keep in mind that Taylor’s paper on the Principles of Scientific Management (1913) opened with the following assertion:

“The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for the employee.”

And went on to address possible objectors to its whole project:

“The majority of these men believe that the fundamental interests of employees and employers are necessarily antagonistic. Scientific management, on the contrary, has for its very foundation the firm conviction that the true interests of the two are one and the same: that the prosperity for the employer cannot exist through a long term of years unless it is accompanied by prosperity for the employee, and vice versa; and that is tis possible to give the workman what he most wants – high wages – and the employer what he wants – a low labor cost – for his manufacturers.”

Substitute engagement or purpose for high wages above and innovation for low labor cost and is Taylor’s promise starts to sound close to what we’re still working on today.

Is engagement about making work a more fulfilling experience for people or is it about organizational effectiveness? Can it accomplish both missions? And if so, what would it take? These are just some of the questions that I’ll be looking at over the next year.

If you have thoughts about any of this, please share them in the comments.

Employee Engagement? It’s Complicated.

I’m poking around in the literature on employee engagement. Having ingested a fair share of the progressive OD literature: Senge, Wheatley, Peters, Cummings & Worley—employee engagement seems like a particularly interesting niche to explore. For starters, it has a progressive, people-centered ring to it. It’s heartening to think that people’s positive experience at work has enough perceived value  to command millions of dollar in investment–as much as $720 million per year according to a frequently cited Bersin report.

At the same time, you don’t have to dig far to discover that despite the money pouring in, employee engagement remains elusive. Why? Well, let’s consider three factors to start: definition, return on investment and access .

Definition The concept of employee engagement emerged in the mid-1990s, 25-years on, the field has yet to settle on a  definition of what employee engagement represents. Is it a measure of job satisfaction? Commitment to the organization? Individual enthusiasm translated into discretionary effort? Or a pro-active psychological state, something like Csikszentmihalyi’s flow but different? Is employee engagement an antecedent, mediator or an outcome? The answer, is yes. Depending on which expert or consulting firm you employ.

Here are a few of the ways employee engagement has been conceptualized:

“…a heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for his/her job, organization, manager, or co‐workers that, in turn, influences him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.”
The Conference Board, 2006
“…a personal state of authentic involvement, contribution and ownership.”
The Philadelphia Human Resource Planning Society, 2002
“…discretionary effort or a form of in‐role or extra‐role effort or behavior.”
Macey & Schneider, 2008
“…the harnessing of organization membersʹ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances.”
Kahn, 1990
“…a person’s involvement satisfaction as well as enthusiasm for work.”
The Gallup Organization
“To 1) Speak positively about the organization to co-workers, potential employees and customers, 2) Have an intense desire to be a member of the organization 3) Exert extra effort and are dedicated to doing the very best job possible to contribute to the organization’s business success.”
Aon Hewitt

To get more into the weeds on the conceptualization of engagement, start here, or here.

Return on Investment. Regardless of the differences in conceptualization research shows that companies derive real value from the contribution of engaged employees: including measurable increases in productivity, customer satisfaction, and innovation. But do employees who invest more of their discretionary effort into an organization see value as well? Here’s what Rebecca Ray, PhD, executive vice president of human capital and engagement research at the Conference Board had to say about that.

“People feel there’s too little reward for their discretionary efforts. Most workers today have seen co-workers or family members get laid off, and also have had their benefits cut and bonuses frozen. All this just makes people focus on their survival.”

Access.  Despite the uneven ROI, it seems likely that people who work want access to engagement on the job. Organizations, regardless of their size, purpose, and approach want to access the benefits of an engaged workforce. Which brings us to the question of how is engagement to be realized? What does it take for people to expand their sense of well-being, enthusiasm, and commitment at work? What does it take for companies to become environments in which this can happen?

While there’s no shortage of answers to these questions in the popular management literature, the challenge of employee engagement is far from solved. In fact, the 2017 Gallup State of the Global Workplace Report shows that a whopping 85% percent of people surveyed around the work are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work. Rethinking how we approach engagement is as relevant as ever.

What do you see about engagement in your workplace? What contributes to your experience of engagement at work? Please feel free to leave your comments below.