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7 Leadership Characteristics That Engage Employees

Graphic Showing Icons for Listen Learn and LoveResearch leaves little room for doubt. Employee engagement is at an all-time low. And it’s up to frontline managers to develop and display the leadership characteristics that boost engagement levels. Otherwise, businesses flounder and fail. 

A 2017 report from Gallup indicates that 85% of employees are not actively engaged in their work.  In other words, more than four out of five employees are less motivated and productive than those who are actively engaged. This negatively affects customer satisfaction, revenue production, profitability, innovation, and growth opportunities.

Engagement matters. “Highly committed employees try 57% harder, perform 20% better, and are 87% less likely to leave than employees with low levels of commitment,” according to the Corporate Executive Board.

That’s why leadership matters, too. The #1 driver of improved engagement levels is the manager. People who report to a particular manager will be more (or less) engaged based on their interactions with that manager.

Why Leadership Characteristics Matter in the Manager

Here’s the breakdown of why the manager matters so much.

  1. Employee engagement is “a heightened emotional connection that the employee feels for his/her organization, that, in turn, influences him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.” (source: CEB)

  2. Emotional commitment drives effort. Emotional commitment is four times as valuable as rational commitment in producing discretionary effort. Indeed, the search for a high-performing workforce is synonymous with the search for emotional commitment.” (source: CEB)

  3. “The manager has tremendous impact on employees’ levels of emotional commitment to the team, organization and job.” (source: The Corporate Leadership Council)

As this illustration from the Corporate Leadership Council illustrates, the attributes and activities of a manager have a direct correlation to an employee’s emotional commitment. And, as stated above, it’s that emotional commitment that drives engagement and all the resulting benefits.

In this post, we’ll look more closely at attributes. Specifically, here are 7 characteristic of leaders that boost employee engagement levels and 10 characteristics that diminish it.

Leadership Characteristics of the “Most Admired” Leaders

In workshops for The Leadership Challenge, facilitators review research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner about the Characteristics of Admired Leaders. Consistently, across sectors and around the world, four characteristics rise to the top.

People admire leaders who are:

  • Honest
  • Competent
  • Inspiring
  • Forward-looking

Please more willingly chose to follow those they can believe, those who know how to get the job done, those who show them how their own self-interests can be realized by enlisting in a shared vision, and those who paint the picture of an ideal future state.

All too often, managers focus on results and tasks. They inadvertently message that employees should do whatever it takes to produce the desired results. They compromise their own credibility by not following through on promises made (in an effort to get today’s work done today). They operate with a “hair on fire” reactivity that suggests they don’t really know what they’re doing. And they get so focused on the short-term that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

As a result, employees feel detached from their work and their managers. They don’t feel emotionally connected or committed because they feel dehumanized by the work-only focus.

Managers who put people first and step into their own leadership (not just management) are more successful. Why? Because they have more engaged employees.

Leadership That Connects You to Others

These characteristics are also high-value when it comes to forming emotional connections with employees.


Don’t misunderstand. Humility is not about weakness, meekness or subservience. It’s not about deflecting credit or adopting an “aw shucks” false modesty. It doesn’t mean refusing to accept compliments or indulging in some self-deprecating schtick. Real humility comes from a place of confidence, not a poor sense of self-esteem.

Being humble means being open and vulnerable enough to continually learn. It means being willing to admit mistakes and to acknowledge that others might have other (even better!) ways of doing the work. Humility is the cousin of curiosity and the forebear of wisdom. 

Employees have something to teach managers. Emotional commitment is strengthened when managers dignify what others know and show willingness to listen and learn from all members of the team. Giving others voice and agency requires humility.

As C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

Oriented to Others

Thinking of yourself less carries over to this characteristic, too.

Humans respond to the people who are responsive to them. We return a smile. We gravitate to those who make eye contact with us. We listen to people who have first listened to us. Even with strangers, we open ourselves when others seem interested.

When managers manage up or insulate themselves in their own office, they aren’t demonstrating an orientation to others. Their lack of availability signals a lack of interest.

When managers seem self-absorbed by their own schedules, deadlines, and deliverables, employees feel abandoned. Even if they don’t need a manager’s input and direction, they want a manager’s affirmation and backing.


A business buzzword, but one that merits some attention. Being authentic seems, to some, to be a license for bad behavior. “I’m just sayin’” and “I’m not gonna lie” are opening statements that often lead to criticisms based on pet peeves or personal feelings. To justify sharing that is unproductive, managers sometimes excuse their choices by saying they’re “just being authentic.”

Being authentic means being genuine and real. It means representing one’s true nature or beliefs and being true to oneself. It doesn’t give leaders license for being obnoxious, overstepping the bounds of common courtesies, or hurting others.

In management, there is a balance you have to strike. Being real shouldn’t interfere with being considerate. Being true to yourself shouldn’t take something away from someone else’s true self. You have an obligation to form emotional connections and boost employee engagement. You can do this while being yourself IF you are also oriented to others and humble.  

Bonus: 10 Behaviors That Will Work Against You

There are some myths about leadership that only serve to disengage employees. “It’s lonely at the top” and “ivory tower” thinking has been the demise of many leader. Similarly, command-and-control vs. heart-and-soul management styles impair engagement and effectiveness.

Here are 10 characteristics of leaders that will make it very difficult to form emotional connections:

  • Relying on authority vs. influence
  • Being aggressive rather than assertive
  • Clinging to control instead of delegating work that develops others
  • Taking credit that rightfully belongs to someone else
  • Treating employees like worker bees instead of individuals
  • Positioning yourself as a maverick, out of step with the rest of the management team
  • Shutting down opinion, input, ideas or questions from other members of the team
  • Being quick to criticize and slow to praise
  • Ignoring the interests others have in learning and growing
  • Failing to provide clear expectations and regular feedback

By working on the characteristics that are more likely to boost employee engagement, you can create a workplace culture and environment where people thrive and results improve. This is the ultimate deliverable for any manager, one that merits serious thought about how you can modify your behaviors.

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