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How can leaders achieve high employee engagement?

Jessica Xu (JRA (NZ) Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand)
Helena Cooper Thomas (Department of Psychology, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand)

Leadership & Organization Development Journal

ISSN: 0143-7739

Article publication date: 14 June 2011




Organizations aspire to have engaged employees, and spend considerable resources to measure and improve employee engagement. Theoretically, leadership is a key antecedent of engagement, yet there is no research directly linking leader behaviors and follower engagement. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the evidence for such a link.


Research was conducted with a large New Zealand insurance organization, using data from direct reports. A pilot study was first conducted (n=236), in which the JRA 360‐degree feedback instrument was factor analyzed. Subsequently, a linkage analysis (n=178) was conducted to establish the relationship of the resultant leadership factors with JRA's employee engagement measure.


Three factors emerged from the JRA 360: supports team, performs effectively, and displays integrity. Correlation and regression results showed that supports team was the strongest predictor of engagement; semi‐partial correlations showed that the three leadership factors overlapped in their relationships with engagement, with supports team predicting most unique variance.

Research limitations/ implications

Additional research is needed to assess the generalizability of the findings, and to establish causality.

Practical implications

The results demonstrate that there are multiple ways in which leadership behaviors are associated with employee engagement. The primacy of supports team suggests that leader behaviors in this domain should be a priority. Although our design does not establish causality, we suggest that leaders should capitalize on their strengths to improve engagement among their followers.


The design of this study is superior to previous research, in particular using a clear measure of employee engagement. The results suggest that team‐oriented behaviors are the most important for leaders in achieving high employee engagement. Importantly, the results also indicate that other leadership behaviors – relating to effective performance and displaying integrity – may also facilitate employee engagement.



Xu, J. and Cooper Thomas, H. (2011), "How can leaders achieve high employee engagement?", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 32 No. 4, pp. 399-416.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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