The role of leaders (and managers) in creating a compelling EX

Emma Bridger

03 Apr 2023
Employee Experience
Employee Engagement
Before we delve into the topic more deeply, we wanted to let you know that, for ease, we will use the terms manager and leaders interchangeably.

There are numerous opinions, studies, books and more that offer up opinions on the difference between leaders and managers. One view is that leaders are more focused on the future, have a strategic role and should inspire others. Whereas managers are more focused on the here and now and getting the job done. The truth is that in reality it is more complex: managers need to lead, and leaders need to manage.  A diagnosis of the difference between the two is outside of our remit here. Therefore, when we refer to either leaders or managers, we are talking about people who have some kind of responsibility for other people at work.


Edgar Schein famously says that leaders’ most important role is looking after culture. In particular, recognising and changing culture where it no longer serves the organisation. In fact, he suggests leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. Cultural norms dictate how an organisation defines leadership and chooses leaders.

Intuitively it seems that leaders will have a critical role to play in employee experience, but it’s useful to take a look at some evidence to back these assumptions up. IBM conducted an in-depth research programme to understand their ideal EX, what drives it and expected outcomes. They discovered that EX begins with the direction and support of leaders, who in turn facilitate the EX via what they term ‘human workplace practices’. These practices include elements such as trust, relationships, meaning, empowerment, recognition, voice, growth and more.

The IBM research concluded that:
“Leaders and managers play a powerful role in setting the overall tone and direction of an organization, effectively setting the stage for a more positive employee experience”.
Further analysis revealed how leaders contribute towards a compelling EX, indicating that this begins with the provision of clarity around future direction and why employees matter helping the to move the organisation forwards. However, at the same time they discovered that just 56% of employees say their senior leaders are providing clear direction about where the organisation is headed. Clearly there is work to be done. They also found that leaders serve and support the team, this positively impacts the EX.

Leaders matter

Research from Gallup adds further weight to the idea that leaders matter when it comes to EX. When reviewing different stages of the employee lifecycle they found that an employee’s interaction with their manager made the biggest different to EX. For example:


Millennials say that “quality of manager” is a top factor they consider when looking for a new job.


When managers play an active role in onboarding, employees are 2.5 times more likely to strongly agree their onboarding was exceptional.


Managers account for an astounding 70% of the variance in their team’s engagement.


Only 2 in 10 employees strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.


52% of exiting employees say that their manager could have done something to prevent them from leaving their job.
Nevertheless, only 51% of employees who left their job had a conversation about their engagement, development or future during the three months leading up to their departure.

Cultural environments

Further evidence is provided via a study to explore the influence of cultural environment factors in EX and its subsequent impact on employee engagement. The findings revealed leadership as a critical component for employee experience which then builds employee engagement. And in a further study leadership was found to have the highest importance for a positive EX.

Leadership style

A compelling EX is required for employees to be engaged and there are a number of studies which have make the link between leadership style and engagement. For example, one such study, looked at the effects of a transformational leadership style on employee engagement. The research from Tims et al explored the ways in which line managers leadership style influences engagement. Their findings indicated that daily transformational leadership related positively to employees’ daily engagement, and further investigation highlighted that it was in fact the optimism of leaders that mediated this relationship. So an optimistic leadership style, in this case, had an impact on the engagement of employees.

Authentic leadership

Authentic leadership has also been found to impact employee engagement. Authentic leadership can be defined as:
“A pattern of leader behaviour that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster greater self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on the part of leaders working with followers, fostering positive self-development” (Walumbwa et al 2008).
Authentic leadership behaviours have been found to positively relate to employee engagement. For example in a study by Xu et al, the following leadership behaviours were found to predict engagement:

  • Supports team
  • Performs effectively
  • Displays integrity

Further analysis revealed that “supports team” was the strongest predictor of subsequent engagement. It seems sensible to suggest that supporting your team would contribute to a positive EX.

Intellectual stimulator leadership

In addition, a style of leadership known as intellectual stimulator leadership, was found to increase job satisfaction, effort, and effectiveness when positive emotions like enthusiasm, hope, pride, happiness, and inspiration complement the leadership (Zineldin, 2017).
What these studies show is that the way in which leaders lead can have an impact on a range of outcomes which are associated with how employees experience work. Additionally, interestingly both transformational leadership and authentic leadership are sometimes looked at via the lens of positive leadership. Positive leadership is an umbrella term for a number of different leadership models which have some key elements in common:

  • It involves being purposeful about experiencing, modelling, and positive emotions.
  • It involves being interested in your teams development as well
  • It also involves attributes of high self-awareness, optimism, and personal integrity

It makes sense that positive leadership will help to facilitate a compelling EX. To understand more about positive leadership, we can look to the work of Kim Cameron. In his book, Practicing Positive Leadership, where he outlines not only a substantial body of empirical evidence for the impact of positive leadership, but also practical tools and techniques. In summary Kim argues that positive leadership practices enables employees and organisations to flourish, achieve their highest potential, experience elevating energy and become more effective.

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