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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Noble

How to Lead Effectively

Effective leadership leads to greater success. I’ll say it again: effective leadership leads to greater success. Seventy percent of what makes an employee engaged at work depends on that employee’s manager. Engaged employees produce increases in customer ratings and profitability and decreases in safety incidents, absenteeism, and turn-over. And, engaged employees are an endangered species in organizations with poor leadership.

There’s a problem, however. Many leaders are placed into leadership positions without knowing how to actually be a leader. This is 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. This process continues until they reach “a level of respective incompetence” as Laurence Peter, creator of the concept, would suggest. That means, most leaders don't know how to lead.

Fortunately, researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have a solution to this problem. 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.


Leaders who want top performing employees should consider heeding Deci and Ryan's advice by taking a look at their 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 have made associated changes to support employee autonomy have experienced a return on investment of more than 3 to 1. That's an ROI that speaks for itself.

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