Are you an engaging leader?

Irana Nikolova

Engaging leaders really are worth their weight in gold, nurturing healthy and engaging work environments. What separates the behaviors of engaging leaders from disengaging ones? Irina Nikolova explains.

Companies today largely rely on their first-line managers to foster an engaged workforce. To help managers become engaging leaders who leave their employees with a feeling of autonomy and better social relationships, companies generously invest in management development programs, which are aimed at increasing managerial competences and reducing undesirable behaviors.

Despite these efforts to train managers, too often employees report counterproductive behaviors from their manager. In some cases, these behaviors can be symptomatic of a larger problem – a negative disengaging leadership style that can demotivate employees by frustrating their basic psychological needs. The result? Emotional exhaustion, or even burn-out.  

But what does it mean to be an engaging leader and what should we look out for when talking about disengaging leadership?

Leadership based on three psychological needs

According to recent studies in the management field, engaging leaders strive to help employees to fulfill three basic psychological needs:  

  1. The need for autonomy: That employees feel in control when conducting their daily tasks
  2. The need for competence: That they feel effective and competent in their job
  3. The need for relatedness: That they feel loved and cared for by their direct social work environment

Conversely, disengaging leadership actively frustrates these three psychological needs.

Weak leadership versus disengaging leadership

Engaging and disengaging leadership styles might seem as if they are the opposite of one another, but this is not that black and white.

It is important to note that that there is an essential difference between a leader lacking these supportive behaviors, and a leader showing destructive behaviors oriented towards actively undermining and thwarting the psychological needs of their followers.

The first is an example of weak engaging leadership, while the second is active disengaging leadership.

Perception matters

One study has showed that engaging leaders can both increase employees’ experiences of work autonomy and help them to build better social relationships at work.

The same study established that engaged employees report more social support and developmental opportunities, presumably because individuals who experience these positive leadership behaviors are more proactive, more actively seeking developmental opportunities in their environment and are better able to establish and maintain relationships at work.

Altogether, because of their inclination to view their environment in a more positive way, engaged employees also perceive their leader as more engaging.

Way towards engaging leadership

In contrast to the positive processes that engaging leadership produces, the second study showed that disengaging leadership is associated with more negative psychological states, such as emotional exhaustion. Disengaging leaders seem to thwart the three basic psychological needs of employees.

In addition, disengaging leaders frustrate employees need for meaningfulness. This is actually a fourth, more recently introduced basic psychological need, where a leader creates a sense that their follower’s job is deprived of meaning.

Based on the findings from the two studies, leaders should be more mindful of the extent to which they are helping or obstructing employees in fulfilling their needs for autonomy, competence, relatedness and meaningfulness. As a leader, you will also likely stand a much better chance of becoming a truly engaging leader, if you are able to recognize and avoid disengaging behaviors.

Want to learn more about engaged leadership in teams?

If you are a large organization (preferably with 50 teams or more), you are invited to participate in a new research project about engaged leadership.

Your teams can contribute to more knowledge about team dynamics and shared leadership by participating in a survey two times over the course of 6-12 months. Show your interest by sending an email to irina.nikolova@bi.no.


Nikolova, I., Caniëls, M. C., Schaufeli, W., & Semeijn, J. H. (2021). Disengaging Leadership Scale (DLS): Evidence of Initial Validity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(6), 2824. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18062824

Nikolova, I., Schaufeli, W., & Notelaers, G. (2019). Engaging leader–engaged employees? A cross-lagged study on employee engagement. European Management Journal, 37(6), 772-783. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18062824


Published 20. September 2021

You can also see all news here.