Want to become a more engaging leader? Start partnering with your people 

If you are like most leaders, you’re highly motivated, deeply dedicated, and constantly looking for ways to improve performance. 

In our latest analysis of manager survey data from our global normative database, we found that 88% of leaders and managers are willing to put in extra effort to help their organization succeed, 87% are proud to work for their current employer, and 92% regularly think of new and better ways of doing things at work.

But our data also show that high levels of managerial pride, passion, and commitment do not necessarily translate into a positive employee experience. When we asked direct reports to evaluate their leaders and managers, they highlighted a number of shortcomings: 32% of employees in our normative database do not feel that their immediate manager acts as a coach and mentor, 29% do not think their manager evaluates their performance fairly, and 23% do not feel inspired by their boss. If you’re an executive, things don’t look any better: only 63% of employees trust their senior leaders.

Relationships: The essence of leadership

So what’s the best way to become a more effective leader and create a compelling employee experience? Scientists, scholars, and practitioners have been studying leadership for over a century, and a number of different schools of thought have emerged. In fact, the leadership literature is so vast (Google search effective leadership and you’ll find over 11 million results) that you might wonder where to begin. Should you focus on building your EQ, increasing your emotional agility, becoming more mindful? Should you lead from the front, the middle, or the back? Should you try to be more authentic, more charismatic, more humble?

While these different theories highlight various pathways to leader effectiveness, they all emphasize one important point: your success depends on the quality of the relationships you create.

As leadership experts and researchers like Warner Burke and Mary Uhl-Bien have emphasized, leadership is a negotiated social relationship, a reciprocal influence process that only exists when leaders and followers work together and support each other. As leadership writers like John Maxwell have noted, if no one is following you, you aren’t really leading, no matter what your title says.

Findings from the field

To gain a better understanding of the ways leaders relate to their direct reports, we developed a brief upward feedback instrument that evaluates two critical components of the leader-follower relationship: power relations and personal support.

Two foundational leadership theories helped guide our thinking. First, Mary Parker Follett made a distinction between power-over relationships, where leaders seek to control and coerce their followers, and power-with relationships, where leaders seek to empower and enable their followers. Second, a number of researchers, starting with Robert Bales and Ralph Stodgill, have found that some leaders develop warm and caring relationships (i.e. high consideration relationships) with their followers, while others are more distant and aloof (i.e. low consideration relationships).

By integrating these two bodies of literature, we identified four fundamental leadership styles:

  • Partnership leaders establish empowering relationships with their followers based on trust, respect, and autonomy.

  • Paternalistic leaders establish authoritative relationships with their followers based on care, control, and structure.

  • Transactional leaders establish quid pro quo relationships with their followers based on the exchange of valued resources.

  • Adversarial leaders establish abusive relationships with their followers based on fear, intimidation, and coercion.
Then we asked over 1,700 employees working in small, medium, and large organizations to identify the relational style their immediate manager usually exhibits on a daily basis. Employees also provided feedback about various aspects of their work experience, including the extent to which they felt engaged, committed, and confident at work.

When we analyzed the results, three main findings emerged. 

  1. Paternalism is prevalent.  

    Almost four out of ten respondents (39%) in our research sample said their boss exhibits a paternalistic style of leadership, followed by 32% who said their boss treats them like a partner. Fifteen percent said their leader exhibits a transactional style, and 14% said their leader acted in adversarial ways.


  2. Partnership behaviors create positive employee experiences
    Across a wide range of survey items, measuring everything from strategic clarity to performance enablement and innovation, employees felt most positive when they were working for a leader who displayed partnership behaviors. For example, we found that 89% of employees working with a partnership-oriented leader felt confident in the future of their organization. This was significantly higher than confidence levels for employees working with paternalistic (81% favorable), transactional (72% favorable), or adversarial leaders (48% favorable).
  3. Considerate treatment is critical.
    Engagement levels for employees working with partnership (82% favorable) and paternalistic leaders (70% favorable) were notably higher than engagement levels for employees working with transactional (54%) or adversarial bosses (29%).

What kind of experience are you creating for your team?

If you want to be a more effective leader, this research raises an important question: What type of relationship have you established with your employees? Because the quality of the relationships you’ve created with your direct reports is having a powerful impact on their experience at work.

One way to get a quick read on your leadership style is to think about the last few meetings or interactions you have had with your direct reports. Did you focus mainly on sharing your ideas, or listening to theirs? Were you distant and demanding, or approachable and accepting? Did you make decisions for your employees, or with them? Did you respond to problems by imposing new rules and regulations, or by exploring root causes and asking your team to identify possible solutions?

By reflecting on these questions and getting feedback from the people you work with, you may discover opportunities to adopt a more collaborative leadership style.

Peter Drucker once encouraged leaders to “accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer.” Based on our research, this is advice worth heeding. Treat your employees like true partners, with a deep sense of respect and reciprocity, and their intrinsic motivation will soar.

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