The Right Leadership Styles for Higher Employee Engagement

5 min read
Jul 3, 2015

The Right Leadership Styles for Higher Employee Engagement by TINYpulseAre you a charismatic leader, a coercive leader, or a coach? Or maybe a little bit of all three?

Leadership style matters. For one, it sets the overall tone for your organization and influences your employees. It can also boost — or in some cases reduce — employee engagement levels.

There’s no one leadership style that can guarantee high employee engagement numbers, but there may be a time and a place for each approach.

Here’s what Daniel Coleman, the co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University, suggests: “Imagine the styles, then, as the array of clubs in a golf pro’s bag. Over the course of a game, the pro picks and chooses clubs based on the demands of the shot.”

Here are seven leadership “clubs” to mull over, as well as the pluses and minuses of each:

1. Charismatic: The charismatic leader inspires their employees and expands their organization through the power of their personality, according to the Center for Association Leadership. They’re typically icons whose self-branding is as important as their product or message. Think Gandhi, Oprah, or Ronald Reagan.

Plus: Charismatic leaders use their passion to inspire those around them, calling employees to action and increasing the team’s morale. That’s good for employee engagement.

Minus: Because this type of leadership style revolves around one person, the organization’s success is often defined as the leader’s success. Employees may feel marginalized if they’re not getting credit for their hard work. SHRM and Globoforce’s research shows a link between companies that recognize their employees and higher engagement levels.

2. Coercive: A coercive leader wants immediate compliance and has a “do what I tell you” attitude. As the CEO Institute notes, this style can be helpful in times of crisis, such as a company turnaround, or a true emergency, like a natural disaster.

Plus: A shake-up in culture can be a good thing, if the changes are meant to allow employees to innovate in the face of crisis. When an organization is stagnating, financially or otherwise, a take-charge leader can reenergize employees by giving the company a new purpose.

Minus: Of all the leadership styles, this one is particularly high-risk. A “do as I say” leader alienates subordinates and stifles innovation by insisting that things are only done the way they want it. That’s no good when it comes to keeping employees engaged.

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3. Authoritative: According to Coleman, authoritative leaders typically have a clear vision, then motivate their employees to make that vision come true. They’re confident and mobilize their teams with purpose.

Plus: Authoritative leaders set clear goals for their employees and provide context for how individual tasks fit within a bigger picture. Employees see a connection between the task they’re being given and the organization’s overall strategy, so their work takes on meaning. Plus, they’re given the freedom to figure out how to achieve those goals.

Minus: Authoritative leaders can become dictatorial and may set unreasonable goals that employees can’t achieve. More senior employees may not respond to authoritative leaders, who tend to govern from the top-down and don’t necessarily ask for feedback.

4. Affiliative: Coleman defines affiliative leaders as those who put people first. These leaders want their employees to be happy and harmonious, so they emphasize relationships above tasks. They use emotional bonds to create a strong loyalty, which, in turn, motivates employees to do their best.

Plus: Since this type of leader puts people first, employees feel valued because their needs are being met. Communication is open and employees are encouraged to work closely with each other, fostering a collaborative, productive environment. Affiliative leaders offer plenty of positive feedback and flexibility, something workers say they crave, according to a survey by EY.

Minus: However, without clear directives and a vision, employees can become rudderless, and their work suffers as a result. They go through the motions of working without feeling compelled to go the extra mile because their individual tasks may not align with the organization’s overall goals.

5. Democratic: Democratic leaders govern by consensus. They spend a lot of time building trust and respect by listening to what their employees have to say, whether it’s the direction of the company or specific goals.

Plus: When a leader listens to employees, the benefits are immediate. Employees are more likely to have higher morale, knowing that they can voice their concerns on an ongoing basis. Workers also share responsibility for decisions, so they feel ownership of what they’re doing and why.

Minus: Like the democratic process, this type of leadership tends to be slow and deliberative. As a result, things don’t happen quickly, or they can happen over the course of several meetings. Without structure and clarity, employees may feel a sense of uncertainty about everything, which easily leads to disengagement. 

6. Pace Setter: The “do as I do” leader sets the pace for employees and the industry with high standards. As a result, employees are motivated to follow the example at the top. The Center for Association Leadership notes that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos exemplifies this type of leadership style.

Plus: The pace-setting leader inspires employees to give their best by setting an example. Employees are motivated not only by a sense of urgency about the task at hand, but also because they see that both leadership and frontline employees are held to the same high standard.

Minus: According to the CEO Institute, exclusive use of the pace-setting “style can be overwhelming and discourage innovation.” That’s because pace-setting leaders can burn out employees by demanding too much. There’s also the danger of micromanaging when employees aren’t performing up to the high standard.

7. Coaching: True to the title, coaching leaders help employees do better work by focussing on each person’s unique strengths and weakness. They instruct when necessary and offer plenty of feedback. Helping employees develop along a career path becomes the primary motivation.

Plus: An employee-focused leader helps workers grow and keeps a constant channel of communication open. Employees thrive under such a leader because they feel valued and challenged in a positive way. In turn, they rise to the challenge and put forth their best effort.

Minus: Coaching is a slow, ongoing process, which ignores short-term failures for long-term gain. Unfortunately, this approach treats low-performing employees and high-performing employees in the same way, giving high performers a reason not to keep up their level of productivity.

No one leadership style is a golden ticket for employee engagement, but understanding the different approaches offers insight into what’s working and what isn’t when it comes to motivating employees. A leader can employ multiple styles, as Coleman suggests, or install a leadership team that represents the different approaches for a multifaceted approach.



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