Leadership Strategies for Engagement at Work

This blog is about the impact of leadership strategies on employee engagement.


John (not his real name) is a top-notch designer. He leads a team of designers charged with some highly technical work for some very particular and demanding clients. John has become extremely frustrated with his team. It seems that, throughout his workday, members of his team are constantly interrupting and checking in with John about issues that, based on the team members’ experience, they should be able to handle independently. John finds these constant interruptions aggravating. They undermine his ability to complete his own work. As a result, John is often irritable, dismissive, or perhaps even hostile towards his team members when they seek his help. As the entire team’s performance declines, John’s stress increases. Finally, John resorts to taking a sick day to avoid further interruptions and complete his work from home.

Internal Working Models

When examined as a cumulative set of experiences, John’s entire history of interactions becomes a set of memories, beliefs, and expectations about the thinking, emotions, and actions related to his role as a leader. These, in turn, influence how his future leadership strategies will be carried out. These patterns of behaviors are “internal working models” (IWM) (Bowlby, 1969). These are based upon how leaders treated him, how he saw leaders treat others, and John’s current history of interactions with others. These IWMs, which are both conscious and unconscious, serve several purposes in leadership.

  1. They help explain differences in the way people lead;
  2. They play an important role in guiding thinking, emotions, and behavior in leader-relevant contexts (i.e., engagement);
  3. They help one establish a view of the self (motives for supporting and leading others), as well as a view of others (recognizing others as worthy of support and protection).

If people lack clarity in their understanding of self or others, they will be likely to report different levels or patterns of engagement [word substituted] at different times.
Further, these mental models, when measured, are an accurate reflection of the range of both cognitive and behavioral strategies that can be associated with leadership (successful and unsuccessful). Engagement is affected because these leadership strategies can be adaptive (flexible and supportive) or maladaptive (rigid and unsupportive), depending upon the context.


We live in the most connected age in human history. Yet, our trusted relationships that serve to protect us, keep us safe, and help us to thrive in our careers are routinely ignored by leaders of all ranks. Research has revealed that the influence of trusted positive relationships continues throughout one’s lifetime, or as Bowlby (1979) put it, “from cradle to grave”. A recent Gallup’s engagement survey revealed that only 2% of employees who are ignored by their managers are engaged in their work (Gallup, 2016).
John’s initial behavior and response was geared toward avoidance of his team. This attitude is based on John’s perception of his team, or its members, as generally untrustworthy and undependable. On the other hand, he views himself as “unacceptable” or (defensible) “too good,” whereby his relationship(s) pose a threat to his leadership and control, and/or are simply not worth the effort (Sperling & Berman, 1994). Additionally, John provided the type of support that was more beneficial to himself than to his team.
From the leadership point of view today, organizations that do not pay enough attention to people and the deep sentiments and relationships connecting them are consistently less successful than those that do (Library.hbr.edu).
The moment that a leader can acknowledge that the goal of leadership is building positive trusting relationships, and that safety and security is as important as strategy and process, he/she has entered the world of engagement.


Engagement is as much about emotions as it is about actions and performance. Successful leadership is dependent on channeling emotions (one’s own as well as those of others) to support engagement and ultimately success. Unfortunately, traditional leadership theories have taught us to leave emotions and our internal self at the door. This suggests that leadership should be exercised (1) by coercion and force; or (2) compulsive self-reliance, requiring abdication of leadership in favor of distancing strategies from employees when anxiety-provoking events that need leaders to interact with others.
Do these kinds of leadership strategies make followers feel safe and increase or even maintain engagement? Empirical evidence and pertinent research convincingly show that when anxiety, fear, and coercion are lessened, and leaders and followers mutually protect, trust, and coöperate with each other, performance increases exponentially. According to Hassan and Ahmed (2011), this is the natural reaction to feeling safe and a central tenet of engagement.


Most people work under the premise, “If I cannot trust that you will keep me safe or look out for me, I must protect myself.” In the workplace, this “self protection” mechanism comes at a price, known as disengagement. As protecting oneself requires much energy, not much is left for work to be done (Kiel, 2015). This is clear in John’s case, who expended most of his energy on protecting his job (working from home), and not doing his job (leading his team).
The most fundamental, powerful, and enduring fuel for performance is a feeling of safety  in ourselves and in the world around us. Most of us spend the greatest percentage of our waking lives in the workplace. But how much energy and capacity is squandered each day worrying in conflict and competition with colleagues, or fielding questions or complaints.

Leadership Strategies

Avoidant strategies.
John exhibited “deactivating,” as one of three leadership strategies for dealing with the internal emotional disruption(s) from his team. Deactivating strategies are based on attempts to deny that interpersonal relationships (and the corresponding trust and cooperation) are important. John was unwilling to make too many emotional demands on his team. Thus, by staying home and on task, internally at least, he was under impression that he maintained his leadership position, as he avoided rejection or failure.
Anything that, or anyone who distracts the individual or frustrates what he or she is doing will make that individual feel anxious, agitated and cross so anyone who adds to the workload, demands a change in focus, threatens to fragment the task is likely to be viewed with hostility (Rhodes & Simpson, 2004).
Such distancing and defensiveness in service to oneself is hardly indicative of full engagement and successful leadership that puts safety and support of others ahead of one’s own. For John, keeping his “emotional distance” seems imperative; yet, it comes at some interpersonal and psychological costs. It means that John cannot bring all of his self (Kahn, 1990) to his leadership, severely restricting his engagement with his team and the team’s functioning.
Anxious strategies.
Another strategy type is known as “hyperactivating.” Individuals exhibiting this strategy tend to be characterized by intrusive behaviors; over involvement or micro managing of people, events, and situations; providing help and support that is not required; excessive demands for reassurance, and to pursue, often unsuccessfully, their own unmet needs for feeling safe and secure. Until these leaders are successful at feeling safe, they can do nothing else, compromising their relationships and their effectiveness. Their success would be based on shifting their focus to other’s distress and not to one’s own emotional state. These leaders may claim that they are fully engaged, but they are motivated solely by the desire to gain the favor and acceptance from the organization.
Secure strategies. Finally, a third strategy is called “secure.” Leaders that adopt secure strategies balance the needs of their followers and allow them to work independently or in groups, depending upon the circumstances. Secure strategies serve as “insurance for survival” (at least in a psychological sense). Flexible and adaptive, these strategies recognize, and leaders are willing to give, the wide range of types of support necessary to meet the needs of their followers, but not overly so! This behavior allows followers to feel safe, be more effective at problem solving, take on calculated risks and new challenges, be creative, and trust and coöperate with each other. Only after secure relationships have been restored or repaired can full engagement truly be achieved.
Leadership Strategies


Few attempts have been made to conceptualize leaders, their strategies for leading (leadership), and engagement in terms of relationship functioning. If organizations wish to improve engagement levels, they might do well to focus on the followers’ perceptions of the support, protection, and safety their leaders offer (Saks, 2006). The self-focused motives underpinning hyperactivating and deactivating leadership strategies interfere with those provisions of support, safety, and protection in relationships. Ultimately, they undermine the goal of a fully engaged workforce.
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