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We often think that a manager is key in employee engagement. But I have seen many situations in which leaders had a negative impact. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that only few leaders find the right approach to contribute positively to engagement. Why is that? I see several reasons:

  • The selection and development of managers is insufficient.
  • Managers see their role as controlling and administrating
  • Some managers work for people who themselves have a disengaging impact
  • Managers see a conflict between leadership and getting things done

If all this is true, we need to change our approach. Should we not focus more on the people themselves if we want to develop employee engagement? Should we stop overestimating the importance of leadership in an organization? Should we get rid of hierarchy and rigid structures, … ?

Where hierarchy is low, engagement will increase.

Still, leaders can have a big impact on people. Having an inspirational leader who creates meaningfulness, a sense of purpose and a feeling of recognition is undeniably a source of professional well-being. But let me ask this question: how many leaders did you have that were inspirational? Let me ask another question. How many teachers did you have who were inspirational, so inspirational that you remember them vividly 30 years later? The answer to both these questions is probably: very few.
Maybe we need to live with that and accept that most people who are in manager roles are mediocre. Maybe we should accept that only few managers are true leaders. And maybe we should just make sure that the damage that people in management roles cause is limited. This seems to be a pessimistic view, but I am not convinced that leaders can do a better job at creating a context in which people are engaged and stay engaged.


There is enough research that suggests that the leadership-member-exchange (LMX) has an influence on enagement and organizational citizenship. The job resources and demands model suggest that engagement is a product of many factors. I refer to the work of Bakker that shows that the demands of a job should be counterbalanced by sources of energy. Leadership – social support – is a source of energy.
But we also know that some people are intrinsically motivated. People who have an internal locus of control, a positive view on things and who are autonomously motivated do not need much leadership. They are kind of self-propelled. They might need some flight control, but only occasionally. So maybe we need to forget about leadership as being a prime source of engagement. At most a leader is a catalyst for engagement and engaged behavior.

Control and Engagement

And then there’s the question: what do we really ask leaders to do? We mostly ask them to control. A very controlling manager is not able to create the conditions for people to be engaged. Can a very controlling manager be a leader? I don’t think so. A leader should be able to decide what he can let go off (as much as possible) and what he needs to hold on to (whatever is necessary).

Collaboration instead of hierarchy

If we were to see leadership as a way of collaboration we’d avoid many of the traps that are inherent in hierarchical relationships. Someone who holds on to the function of a manager and plays a role cannot positively influence employee engagement. He is just an actor.
A leader cannot be responsible for the engagement itself, but he can create an environment in which people can engage, based on empowerment, trust, meaningfulness.┬á A leader has only limited “power”. But by being present and having a collaborative approach (I do not like the word servant leadership) he can and will make a difference.


A leader’s behavior can have a devastating impact on engagement but it can also be a blessing. Remember: you need a strong character to stay engaged when your manager is very controlling and diminishing. But if your manager is a leader, praise yourself lucky.
This blog is inspired by a discussion I have launched on the Linkedin community on employee engagement.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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