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Leader's Toolbox: How to Lead Effectively

The purpose of a leader is simple: funnel the efforts of a group of individuals toward one collective goal. The most effective way to do so, however, is not always so simple. Many leaders are put into leadership positions due to skill or experience in their previous job, as if they are expected to automatically develop strong leadership skills by donning the title alone. This is also known as the “Peter Principle” in which a person who is competent at their job will be promoted to a position that requires a different set of skills (e.g., leadership skills). This process continues until they reach “a level of respective incompetence” as Laurence Peter, creator of the concept, would suggest.

Appointing strong leaders is arguably one of the most important tasks of an organization. In their book, It’s the Manager, Gallup continuously emphasizes their finding that 70% of employee engagement is due to the leadership style of the manager. Yet, time and time again, we hear from our clients that their “leaders don’t know how to lead.” This begs the question: what can organizations do to remedy this problem?

Fortunately, researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have the solution. Deci and Ryan have been conducting research on human motivation for decades and have developed six evidence-based behaviors leaders can adopt that will make a meaningful impact on their leadership style.

1. Acknowledge Perspective

When employees feel like their input is valued, they become more committed to the cause. Instead of a “my way or the highway” approach, leaders who elicit input from others and acknowledge their opinions matter create a sense of shared ownership in the decisions being made. Not only does this increase employee motivation but it often results in the additional sharing of ideas, some of which may be of great value to the organization.

2. Offer Choices

Humans crave freedom and autonomy. When people have their choices limited, they become resistant. This is phenomenon is known as Psychological Reactance. Reactance is “an unpleasant motivational arousal that emerges when people experience a threat to or loss of their free behaviors.” Employees who feel like they have no choices in a decision or action will inevitably become resentful and may experience a loss of motivation. Leaders who provide choices to employees, when possible, will minimize resistance and maximize motivation.

3. Provide Meaningful Feedback

In addition to autonomy, humans also crave mastery. That is, the ability to grow and develop. When leaders give employees consistent, constructive feedback, they are demonstrating an investment in their development. Employees who feel like their bosses are invested in their development are employees who are more engaged, satisfied with their jobs, and tend to stick around longer. What’s more, this practice can have compounding effects as it serves to model what right looks like for future leaders.

4. Encourage Initiation

Again, autonomy is king. When employees experience the freedom to experiment and initiate their own behaviors and not feel pressured or coerced to behave as directed, their well-being and work quality is maximized. Even an organization as directive and controlled as the U.S. Army understands the importance of encouraging autonomous initiation. The Army cites “disciplined initiative”- that is, disciplined action in the absence of orders- as a critical component of mission command. If the U.S. Army can demonstrate trust in its troops’ judgment to initiate action and not always rely on explicit guidance, so should corporate America.

5. Make Assignments Optimally Challenging

People like a challenge. However, it must be the right size challenge in order to be most effective. Tasks that are too easy yield boredom and those that are too hard can lead to frustration. Moderately difficult tasks, on the other hand, have been found to yield the greatest results. Employees who are given a moderately difficult task may feel pride that they are trusted with such a task. They will also experience satisfaction at the completion of the task which will reinforce their motivation to take on more assignments of similar difficulty.

6. Give the Rationale for a Task

Providing “the why” behind assignments has long been a common leadership practice. As the workforce becomes increasingly filled with a more educated and skeptical generation, it becomes increasingly important to provide the rationale behind decisions or tasks. Countless social psychology studies have demonstrated that individuals perform better when they understand the greater purpose of their assignments.


It should be no surprise that employee wellness and job performance are strongly related. Happier, more satisfied employees are more engaged at work, stay in jobs longer, and produce higher quality work. Organizational leaders who are interested in employee wellness (and performance) should take a look at their policies and practices to ensure their employees 1) experience the freedom to initiate their own behaviors as opposed to feeling coerced to behave as directed, 2) feel their leadership is invested in their professional development, and 3) feel a sense of belonging to others in the organization. Leaders who have done similarly and made associated changes to support employee autonomy have experienced a return on investment of more than 3 to 1.

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