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Employee engagement: New science on how leaders engage and inspire

4 min read


A body of research shows employee engagement is essential to driving business results. The Institute for Employment Studies found organizations that made a 10% increased investment in engagement reaped additional profits of $2,100 per employee per year. Yet other studies show 63% employees are not engaged and 13% are actively disengaged.

How can we help executive leadership engage, inspire, align and mobilize action? We define this as executive presence. After extensive research, we have found 15 qualities that make a difference. The model is validated by an independent panel of Ph.D. experts, and has been deployed in 17 countries in a wide array of industries.

One accepted definition of engagement is “the propensity to exert discretionary effort.” Leadership experts agree that while some portion of discretionary effort is intrinsic to the employee’s attitude and motivation, some of it is inspired by good leadership. The Bates executive presence model, with three dimensions, explains how leaders can project qualities that engage and inspire.

Character qualities build trust and goodwill; Substance qualities earn followership; and Style inspires above and beyond effort and commitment.

Bates Communications

What the data tell us about why leaders fall short

By analyzing data collected from hundreds of Bates ExPI assessments, we see clues as to why leaders can fall short on engagement. Among 90 questions on the multi-rater, 12 of the lowest rated 15 items (as rated by direct reports, peers and managers) are social/emotional qualities that studies connect to motivation and engagement.

In its “2015 Trends in Global Employee Engagement,” AON Hewett found that leaders who engage “energize others, keep people focused on purpose and vision.” In “Drive,” Dan Pink identifies “purpose” as one of the three key drivers of motivation — “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

Among the lower-rated items on the Bates ExPI are:

  • “makes even daunting goals seem realistic, exciting and achievable”
  • “paints a vivid, compelling picture of what could be”
  • “makes you feel part of something bigger, important and meaningful.”

Managing conflict also has an impact on engagement and productivity

There are documented connections between the leader’s ability to manage workplace conflict and lower engagement and productivity. In “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight” (HBR 2009) the best predictor of lower company performance was “too little conflict,” but the second biggest predictor was “too much.” AON Hewett’s study found a quality of engaging leaders was “stabilizing” their organizations.

Several conflict-management items rank among the bottom 15 on the Bates ExPI, including:

  • “helps others appreciate the value of positive conflict”
  • “recognizes when conflict becomes chronic/destructive and is quick to intervene”
  • “able to shift others from a reactive to a pro-active state of mind”

Can leaders learn to engage others?

You may wonder, “Can leaders get better at this?” The good news is, yes. Leaders can develop in all of these areas.

In a case study with 23 leaders, 74% improved in 10 or more qualities of executive presence, including those mentioned above, after a six month program in leadership development. Their coaches typically asked them to focus on just two or three areas or presence. The encouraging news was that, in a second round of ExPI assessments, the leader’s colleagues often rated them higher in other areas of presence, too.

Adaptive development in executive presence starts with providing leaders with specific, actionable feedback. Leaders express a higher degree of confidence and demonstrate greater self-efficacy with the benefit of a structured, research-based assessment and interpretation.

If you’re interested in exploring the Bates Model, you can take free, three-minute, pre-assessment survey, and receive a personalized summary, at

Suzanne Bates is CEO of Bates Communications, and author of four books including “All the Leader You Can Be, the Science of Achieving Extraordinary Executive Presence” (McGraw-Hill, March 2016). Her firm developed the Bates ExPI Assessment (Executive Presence Index) which is deployed in leadership development in dozens of global firms. To learn about getting certified in the Bates ExPI, visit

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