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Styles of leadership driving employee engagement during the pandemic

15 Mar 2021 - Blog

Styles of leadership driving employee engagement during the pandemic

Written by Sam Antoniou, Senior Associate Consultant at People Insight


The last ten months have been some of the hardest for leaders to navigate. So which leaders have passed the test in the eyes of their employees and kept the operational wheels turning?  

We’ve analysed employee commentary from employee surveys run between March and December 2020 for organisations scoring in the top quartile for leadership. Three clear themes emerged about leadership styles that were perceived most positively by employees; 

  1. Caring
  2. Involving
  3. Mobilising  


The Goleman leadership styles utilised by effective leaders throughout Covid

I found it useful to relate employee comments to the Goleman leadership styles. Of the six different leadership styles, Affiliative leadership (people come first) takes the biscuit. Employees felt cared for and safe. Putting people first was not just a branding catchphrase bandied about by managers – it really meant something. Employees needed and were grateful for a human response and for the integrity shown. 


The Goleman leadership styles

Goleman leadership diagram


Democratic leadership (what do you think?) and Visionary leadership (come with me) styles were also put into play. Employees were kept involved in identifying the most effective methods of working, and leaders re-crafted and adapted their vision to mobilise employees towards what could still be achieved in the face of tough circumstances. 


Affiliative Leadership: Behold the human within  

Aside from key workers, the bulk of the workforce had to quickly adapt to remote working. Remaining visible as leaders to a suddenly dispersed workforce was key, and this was most typically achieved through weekly video updates. The best leaders were bold enough to acknowledge tough circumstances and to state when plans or answers were not yet formulated.  

But above all, employees have been seeing leaders as themselves. With video updates being done at home, leaders are communicating from their natural habitat and show more personality. This is a big nod to authentic leadership, whereby more of the ‘real self’ is becoming visible to followers. Remember the BBC interview that went viral because the guest speaker’s children gate-crashed the video? It still tickles me. This is the norm now –  children and pets regularly forming the backdrop of our video calls with colleagues and clients. And there has been little need to don formal work attire just for the sake of Zoom.  


BBC's Interrupted Dad Is Back in an Ad for Twitter About Getting Interrupted

BBC’s Interrupted Dad viral video is now the norm. 


What do employees have to say about affiliative leadership? 

“I am a huge fan of the exco videos. They are well thought through and prepared and it’s great to see our leaders visibly front and centre as well as getting to see their human side.” – Financial Services Client 

“I have never worked anywhere before where the senior management team have been as visible, inclusive, accessible, helpful and have communicated all leadership decisions on a regular basis like they do at my company. – this makes me feel valued , included and involved” 

– Public Sector Client 

And when our top leaders revealed the human within, what did employees discover? First and foremost was integrity. It is hard to truly demonstrate integrity until it is tested, in the same way that if you’re sailing in fine weather, you cannot truly flex your seamanship. It’s the gargantuan, rolling waves that test your mettle and reveal the real person within. The most successful leaders passed the test and upheld their integrity. 

“My line manager has empowered me to ensure that the health and wellbeing of my team is top priority and has given me the freedom to support every single one of them through this time. I have heard the same from my functional director and from the company CEO, so I think this company is led in a very human way”. 

– Gaming & Tech Client  

Conversely, this comment illustrates the sheer disappointment when leaders fail to step up:  

“We are just numbers in system. When we were needed …we were over-worked but at least we had jobs. Once it was all over we were almost made redundant. We are just expendables.” 

– Distribution client  

Empathy was another strong characteristic of Affiliative leadership, and research suggests that empathy is likely to continue being a valued leadership quality post-covid. Empathy and compassion do not make for ‘soft’ leaders. Tough decisions were still made. But employees felt leaders were doing what they could to understand their difficulties and support them. For example, enabling flexibility to juggle family commitments, or keeping as many employees as possible in a job before considering redundancy. 


Democratic Leadership: Keep calm, we’ll figure this out together  

Democratic leadership was the second strongest style adopted by effective leaders, which is all about involving employees in decisions and the way forward. In the initial upheaval of the pandemic, the Commanding (do what I tell you) style may have been appropriate for making swift operational decisions but thereafter, our top scoring leaders switched to involving employees at all levels to get feedback on working practices and how best to serve their customers. This enabled organisations to iron out any operational wrinkles early on and ensure that employees were set-up to maintain (or exceed) productivity.  

Openness and approachability were two common words used in employee commentary to describe leaders in this theme. For Democratic leadership to work, employees have to feel comfortable to speak up, challenge and approach management with ideas. It’s the platform for innovation, learning and feedback.  

“”Position” in the company doesn’t seem to matter here. If an administrator has a question, senior leadership are happy to help more often than not, and will not avoid contact.” – Financial Services Client 

“I can speak to team leaders and high management openly. I feel heard and empowered to challenge if I feel that something more can be done. I see that our opinions are taken on board and acted upon.” 

– Tech Client  

“The openness of communication from senior leadership down to the lowest levels of the organization is the best I’ve seen. What your title is does not impact the value of what you say – we all have an opportunity to share our thoughts.”

– Medical Services Client 


Learn more about involving employees in change in our blog: Tips for leading behavioural change


Visionary Leadership: This is what we can still achieve 

And as if it wasn’t enough for leaders to tread water and stay afloat during the crisis, remaining positive and keeping a focus on the long-term vision was also identified in our analysis, illustrating Goleman’s Visionary leadership style (“come with me”) 

Leaders who did this well excited and gave employees the confidence to believe that services could continue despite challenging circumstances. They were mobilised towards adapted organisational goals and focussed towards the positive impact they could have on the community and the customers they serve.  

“I believe that if  we were to survey the public, they would tell us that CV19 has not made a single difference to the quality of response they have received from us.” 

– Public Sector Client  

For organisations where notable numbers of employees had to be furloughed, it was important to keep them in the loop and reassure that they continued to be part of the team.  

“Constant updates given by my manager. It is essential that those on furlough are kept in the loop. That was done and (I was) reassured that we are still part of the team even though we are not at work.” 

– Distribution Client   

On average, 88% of employees across the organisations analysed felt their leaders continued to provide a clear vision. It is not always possible to commit to clear goals, nor to communicate a clear roadmap. But these leaders were transparent about not having all the answers, or that goals and plans would have to flex as the situation continued to unfold.  




Predictions for 2021: Download our 2021 Employee Experience Trends Report 






What next for different leadership styles in 2021 and beyond?  

2021 will no doubt prove to be another challenging year for leaders to navigate. In times of crisis, the combination of leadership styles demonstrated in this analysis have proved to be incredibly effective at winning the respect, loyalty and engagement of employees.  

And they will also continue to be effective beyond the pandemic. Leaders that utilise these styles, particularly Affiliative leadership, will increase their influence in the form of referent power, a form of personal power that comes from being trusted and respected for the way they handle situations. I’d say this is currently easier to develop than expert power (experiences, skills and knowledge), given the unchartered territory we find ourselves in. With increased influential power, our top scoring leaders are in the best possible position to face on-going challenges as we come through the pandemic.



Thanks to Sam Antoniou for writing this article. 

Connect with Sam on LinkedIn. 



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