The present thesis aimed to examine the potential beneficial effects of leadership, purpose, and values from the perspective of human motivation as defined in self-determination theory. As hypothesized, we found that engaging leadership, embracing and communicating a higher purpose, and paying careful attention to employee value perceptions enhance work engagement and motivation through the satisfaction of basic psychological needs. Need satisfaction, specifically autonomy satisfaction, explained over 55% of the variance in employee motivation and engagement. The studies in this thesis identified engaging leadership and purpose as antecedents to work engagement. Additionally, engaging leadership predicted employee’s intrinsic value perceptions. Taken together, these outcomes underscore the fundamental role of need satisfaction as a linking pin between leadership-purpose-values and work engagement.
In Chapter 2, we examined the role of need satisfaction and frustration in engaging leadership. Interestingly, fulfillment of the basic psychological need of autonomy was positively associated with work engagement and autonomous motivation and helped decrease adverse forms of motivation. In contrast, lower relatedness frustration associated with decreased negative motivation, as predicted, but did not enhance autonomous motivation or engagement. Additionally, we found that autonomy satisfaction had a substantially higher predictive relevance over competence and relatedness satisfaction.
Chapter 3 examined the impact of a corporate objective on motivation and engagement. The objective fitted the definition of a higher or broader purpose and integrated various stakeholder perspectives (employees, customers, shareholders, society, and sustainability). The analyses showed a positive association with autonomous motivation and work engagement. Autonomous motivation explained 56.7% of the variance in engagement, whereas controlled motivation and amotivation played no role.
Subsequent longitudinal analyses confirmed the directionality from purpose to engagement and from autonomous motivation to engagement, but not from purpose to motivation. Nevertheless, employees who feel inspired by the purpose of their organization also display high work engagement. They sense that they contribute to its realization, strive to make the world a better place, and feel they bring value to customers and shareholders. A higher corporate purpose acts as an antecedent to work engagement.
Chapter 4 tested the associations of engaging leadership with how employees perceive the organization’s value orientations and the subsequent impact on work engagement via need satisfaction. We distinguished between intrinsic and extrinsic perceptions. Intrinsic perceptions assessed whether employees experienced the organization as valuing a caring work environment, adding a meaningful contribution to make the world a better place and whether they felt challenged and supported in their personal development and growth. In contrast, extrinsic perceptions refer to the values of power, status, and financial success. Our results show that engaging leadership positively associated with work engagement via perceived intrinsic organizational values and autonomy satisfaction, and negatively with extrinsic value perceptions. Contrary to what we expected, extrinsic value orientations were not negatively associated with the separate need satisfaction measures.
Cross-lagged panel modeling in the longitudinal study of Chapter 4 distinguished specific directionality from leadership to perceived intrinsic values and identified leadership as an antecedent to employees’ value perceptions. Leaders who pay close attention to how employees assess the organization’s value preferences facilitate positive outcomes regarding autonomy satisfaction and work engagement.
Lastly (Chapter 5), we conducted an intervention study into the effects of engaging leadership, need satisfaction, and motivation using a quasi-experimental pretest-posttest control group design. The intervention aimed to increase business results and well-being and decrease sick-leave absenteeism through an eight-month leadership development program targeting mid-level team leaders. The program was conceived in co-creation between senior management and the participating team leaders. It consisted of six separate one-day training sessions with a 6-8-week interval. Additionally, participants intermediately received two one-on-one coaching sessions and peer-consultation sessions in small groups.
We hypothesized that as a result of the program, the business performance on a pre-selected key-performance indicator (KPI) would increase, absenteeism would decrease, and team leaders would display increased autonomy satisfaction and motivation relative to the control group. We also expected the program’s effects to spillover to team-members, who were not involved in the program’s co-creation nor participated in the training sessions. The posttest results showed significant increases in the business KPI, which still continued to increase six months after the intervention; Productivity and financial returns improved. Absenteeism decreased substantially throughout the intervention and also kept falling post-program. The team leaders who participated in the program displayed a substantial increase in autonomy satisfaction and a considerable rise in motivation relative to the control group. For team members, however, the expected spillover effect of autonomy satisfaction and motivation was not observed. Despite the decrease in employee absenteeism and increased productivity, team members did not benefit from their leaders’ increased autonomy and motivation.
Contributions to Knowledge and Theory
The studies in this thesis contribute to knowledge and theory in four ways. First, in leadership research, it is suggested to pay more attention to the underlying process connecting leadership and job outcomes (cf. Judge et al., 2006; Inceoglu et al., 2018). In answering this call, we studied the role of satisfaction and frustration of basic psychological needs in explaining the relationship between (engaging) leadership behaviors and work engagement. Our research confirmed that need satisfaction contributes positively to work engagement, whereas need frustration has an adverse impact (Chapter 2). A recent study of Rahmadani et al. (2019) also confirmed that needs fulfillment connects engaging leadership and work engagement, just as prior studies into transformational leadership and positive job outcomes (Hetland et al., 2015) and employee engagement (Kovjanic et al., 2012). Positive leadership influences how employees experience their work context relative to their sense of self (van Knippenberg, 2018) and may therefore increase self-efficacy Walumbwa et al., 2008), or eudaimonic well-being (Ilies et al., 2005).
More specifically, we found that autonomy satisfaction plays a specific role in the system of needs (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Need satisfaction and frustration in engaging leadership were modeled both as a common factor and separately. Out-of-sample analysis (based on the Stone-Geiser Q2 analysis, see Hair et al., 2017) showed that autonomy satisfaction had the highest predictive relevance in explaining the outcomes compared to both other needs. Moreover, autonomy associated with positive outcomes and decreased negative motivational results. In contrast, relatedness frustration was related to adverse motivational consequences but had no impact on positive outcomes. These results confirm findings presented by Van den Broeck et al. (2016) in their meta-study on the role of basic psychological needs at work. The authors argued that one should consider measuring the basic needs separately because of their distinct predictive validity.
The specific role of autonomy satisfaction was also confirmed in the study on value orientations (Chapter 4). Here too, autonomy satisfaction mediated between leadership and work engagement, while neither competence nor relatedness satisfaction played a significant role. The study’s structural model (assuming a link between engaging leadership and work engagement via intrinsic value perceptions and autonomy satisfaction) explained 55% of the variance in engagement—with all three basic needs 57%. This result supports the theoretical consideration brought forward by Ryan and Deci (2017) that “In many circumstances, needs for relatedness and competence are dependent for their fulfillment on the person’s capacity and freedom to self-organize actions” (p. 250). Moreover, “(…) autonomy (…) is essential to the initiation and regulation of behavior through which other needs are better realized” (p. 250). In summary, we found that the process underlying leadership explains positive outcomes through basic psychological needs theory, with a more prominent role for autonomy satisfaction. This implies that the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness should be measured separately and not as one higher-order construct, because of their distinct roles and varying predictive relevance (Van den Broeck et al., 2016).
Second, the purpose study in Chapter 3 contributed to knowledge development by examining a real, existing corporate purpose that matched the definition of a higher purpose in alignment with shareholder value theory (Freeman, 2004). Our study confirmed that a broader purpose fuels work engagement and may inspire motivated employees. It is the first study to empirically research the psychological dynamic between purpose, motivation, and engagement. An earlier study by Parmar et al. (2017) supports our results indirectly. In that study the authors formulated and tested various hypothetical corporate objectives and found that that a broader corporate objective associated positively with higher need satisfaction.
Third, the study in Chapter 4 revealed that engaging leadership influences how employees experience the organization; Engaging leaders support employees to perceive the intrinsic qualities of the organization rather than the extrinsic qualities. We found that values such as care, contributing to make the world a better place, and self-development associated positively with enhanced need satisfaction and engagement. The study in Chapter 4 builds on a small number of studies that connect leadership with beneficial outcomes through intrinsic values. A recent study in the sports domain (Castillo et al., 2018) revealed that coaches’ self-transcendent values, such as universalism and benevolence (Schwartz, 2012), enhanced feelings of autonomy-support among players.
In a similar vein, Castillo et al. (2018) point to the importance of a strong intrinsic value base for effective, autonomy-supportive leadership. Parallel to the opposition between intrinsic and extrinsic orientations, Schwartz (1992) contrasted self-enhancement and self-transcendent orientations. Like the extrinsic values of power, status, and financial success (Kasser & Ryan, 1996), self-enhancement is related to self-interest through controlling resources and people, and is demonstrated in ambition and competence (Schwartz, 2012). Self-transcendence aligns with intrinsic orientations and emphasizes serving others’ interests, displaying genuine care for whom is close (benevolence), and acceptance and tolerance of all (universalism, Sagiv & Schwartz, 2007). As Yukl (2012) pointed out, values and intrinsic orientations have received limited attention in leadership studies. However, many leadership theories (e.g., servant leadership, Greenleaf, 1998, or authentic leadership, Gardner et al., 2011; George, 2003) do contend that leaders who exhibit values such as compassion, fairness, and humility are more effective. As such, the present study adds to a small niche of leadership research into the positive effects of personal values on performance and well-being.
Fourth, the intervention study (Chapter 5) confirmed that engaging leadership, taught through leadership development training sessions, may lead to real-world business results, as measured through key performance indicators. Additionally, we found a positive impact on autonomy satisfaction and intrinsic motivation for the team leaders who participated in the intervention compared to a control group. Previous studies in leadership interventions or development programs that were based on self-determination theory also found that (autonomy-supportive) leadership behaviors can be learned (Hardré & Reeve, 2009), and lead to improved performance (Deci et al., 1989) and positive performance evaluations (Baard et al., 2004). However, in the present study, we found no impact on employees beyond improved KPI performance and lower absenteeism. Deci et al. (1989) also found no conclusive spill-over effects on team members in their intervention study. In contrast, Hardré and Reeve (2009) reported positive differences for employees in autonomous motivation and work engagement from their training intervention.
The absence of indirect effects of leadership development programs from team leaders to employees is, however, not unique (Kelloway & Barling, 2010). We assume that the lack of indirect beneficial psychological effects in our study is due to the fact that team members were not involved in the co-creation phase (Tafvelin et al., 2018). Hence, they had no influence on the goal-setting process, potentially explaining why their levels of autonomy satisfaction and intrinsic motivation remained unchanged. Nor did team members participate in the training sessions. Presumably, extending the training sessions to include team members in some way may have had an additional beneficial effect.
The present thesis and the four studies presented have some limitations. The first limitation is that the data were gathered from three different groups of respondents employed in two European multinational organizations located in The Netherlands, limiting generalizability across geographic regions and cultures. Studies show that culture may moderate leadership outcomes and perceptions (Campion & Wang, 2019). For example, a recent analysis among Australian managers using Hofstede’s five dimensions of culture model showed that authentic leadership appealed more to followers with Western cultural values and that cultural values moderated leadership perceptions and trust in the leader (Lux & Mao, 2019). For engaging leadership, the moderating role of culture has not been analyzed so far, but, considering previous research, should be assumed.
Another limitation is formed by the cross-sectional design that is used in some of the studies. We followed suggestions for the optimization of cross-sectional designs as put forward by Spector (2019). However, strictly speaking, the author also states that cross-sectional studies cannot serve the purpose of mediational analyses. The two longitudinal studies aimed to counterbalance this issue. They expanded the findings of cross-sectional studies in a two-step approach to explicitly test whether the results of the cross-sectional studies would hold over time and whether we could establish directionality.
Due to practical constraints, time intervals in the longitudinal studies’ measurements were not identical and varied from eight months to one year, which poses a third limitation. It is considered good practice to have equal intervals between measurements (McArdle & Nesselroade, 2014). Also, considering the intervals’ length, all kinds of (intra- and extra-) organizational phenomena may have occurred and influenced fluctuations in the variable’s means (cf. Ancona et al., 2001). It would have been better to have had identical and shorter intervals between measurements, but unfortunately that was not possible for practical reasons.
A fourth limitation is that, despite its rooting in a well-established theory of human motivation, engaging leadership is a relatively new concept and cannot draw on a wealth of studies. However, more and more research on engaging leadership is being published. For instance, a diary study investigated the impact of engaging leadership on daily team job-crafting (Mäkikangas et al., 2017) and confirmed a positive effect on employee’s job crafting behaviors. Another research project analyzed the relationships with autonomy, social support, learning opportunities, and work engagement in a crossed and lagged panel study (Nikolova et al., 2019). That study found a significant cross-lagged relationship between engaging leadership and autonomy, which supports our study’s outcomes in Chapter 2, where we identified a pivotal role for autonomy. However, the Nikolova et al. ’s study found no direct effect from engaging leadership to work engagement, in contrast with the outcomes in Chapter 2 that suggest the opposite. The relationship between engaging leadership and work engagement in our study in Chapter 2 is explained by need satisfaction, which result builds on the mediational analyses on the role of basic needs satisfaction, as found in e.g., Rahmadani et al. (2019). Additionally, in the present thesis, we found needs frustration in engaging leadership (Chapter 2) also partially mediated the relationship with work engagement. We further add to the developing body of research on engaging leadership by examining the impact of engaging leadership on employees’ intrinsic value perceptions (Chapter 4), and the intervention study into business results and well-being (Chapter 5).
A more general challenge in leadership research is construct proliferation (Shaffer et al., 2016). Several authors point to item overlap and redundancy issues, such as between servant, ethical, authentic, and transformational leadership. Hoch et al. (2016) found that authentic leadership, for example, did not explain additional variance in outcome measures compared to transformational leadership. In a discussion paper on construct proliferation and leadership style research, Bormann & Rowold (2018) suggested that leadership constructs can be described more parsimoniously by referring to self-determination theory as the underlying mechanism. Engaging leadership is based on self-determination theory, which, from this view, can be interpreted as a plea for using this concept. Still, readers will find item-overlap with other leadership constructs such, for example, empowering leadership (Amundsen & Martinsen, 2015) or psychological empowerment (Spreitzer, 1995).
In our view, emphasizing the issue of construct proliferation, however important, blurs the essential point of the underlying process explaining the impact of leadership on work engagement. The strength of the engaging leadership concept does not lie in the description of specific leadership behaviors. Although a particular leadership concept may be associated with positive outcomes, it is more interesting to look into the process of why that may be so. In keeping with the tenets of self-determination theory, we believe that employee engagement, for a considerable part, results from dynamic interplay between the social context of work, including leadership (leadership behaviors) and how employees perceive it.
Specific leadership behaviors may stir something in the recipients and hence foster or thwart their motivational energy. Still, it is not the leadership behaviors per se, but rather the dialectical relationship between these behaviors, the social context, and how employees integrate these in their sense of self (Deci et al., 1994). The focus on specific leadership behaviors or leadership style, for that matter, traps one into searching for and identifying particular behaviors. As a result, one risks becoming more authoritative and detailed about what leaders should do without adding explanatory value to the outcomes (as shown by Hoch et al., 2016) or knowing why particular behaviors matter.
Suggestions for Future Research
A few specific suggestions for future research sprang forward from evaluating the studies’ results. A first suggestion builds on the dialectic dynamic, as posited by self-determination theory, which postulates that leaders create social realities through interacting with social contexts. Employees respond to what leaders do or say, interact with them and each other, and thus co-create shared realities. Everyday reality is continuously recreated as a result of this dynamic and tends to influence and flow from the person’s sense of self (Deci et al., 1994; Ryan & Deci, 2017). It would be interesting to delve deeper into these exchanges and experiment with approaches that support healthy, sustainable motivation and foster engagement and well-being.
One aspect of the dynamic between managers and team members is the conversational exchanges they are engaged in at one-to-one and team-level. It would be interesting to follow leaders and their teams and qualitatively and quantitatively analyze their conversations (cf. Shotter, 1993; Tannen et al., 2015). This research might address questions such as: to what extent does their verbal exchange satisfy basic needs and contribute to motivation, engagement, and performance? What aspects of their interaction are detrimental to motivation and engagement? What conversations do leaders and colleagues have? What conversations do they think they should be having but are reluctant to have? The answers to these questions could be fed back and discussed in a group dialogue setting (cf. Bohm, 2004). The team can then decide to integrate the dialogue’s outcomes in their everyday practices and evaluate progress regularly. External researchers and coaches can guide the process.
Secondly, we suggest to study the effects of different purposes of organizations on motivation and engagement through a typology of corporate objectives. In line with our findings and the literature we expect a broader, more comprehensive corporate purpose, as described in Chapter 3, will contribute to enhanced employee motivation, engagement, and performance. Conversely, a narrower objective emphasizing a traditional shareholder value perspective will, we expect, display lower positive or even negative associations. Future research into this issue is important because the study presented in this thesis comprised the analysis of one specific organization’s purpose. It also was the first study to map the psychological effects of a corporate objective on motivation and engagement. The challenge for researchers is to gather and classify different corporate purposes from various organizations and geographical regions and test their association with employee’s motivation and engagement. Additionally, the research could incorporate a meaning-in-life or purpose-in-life questionnaire (e.g., Schulenberg et al., 2010) or a short satisfaction with life scale (e.g., Kjell & Diener, 2020). This would allow to investigate the centrality of work in employee’s lives and their potential contribution to happiness, well-being, and becoming (Ciulla, 2000; Martela & Pessi, 2018): In other words, does a corporate purpose contribute to a sense of meaning in life?
The third suggestion for further research concerns values. Chapter 4 showed that engaging leaders influence how employees perceive their organization’s values. Moreover, we found a significant positive association of intrinsic value perceptions with autonomy satisfaction and work engagement. However, we know little about how these value perceptions can be supported in practice through the interactions that leaders have with their teams and individual team members. Similar to the first suggestion for further study, we could zoom in on the exchange between team leaders and team members and focus specifically on value conversations and monitor the effects over time. Such a study may add to our knowledge about the role that values and value perceptions play in business life. It may deepen our understanding of how to lead in an autonomy-supportive and engaging manner and connect everyday leadership with well-being and performance more solidly.
Practical Suggestions and Considerations for Leaders
In this final section want to offer a few practical suggestions for leaders, based on the results of our studies. Not as a step-by-step ‘how-to’, but as suggestions worth considering. First, a short word of caution. Our studies uncovered statistical associations between variables, for example, that a broader purpose predicts work engagement. At first glance, the associations we found suggest that an organization with a broader corporate objective aiming to benefit all stakeholders is likely to have highly engaged employees and better business results. However, on second thought this would be too simplistic a representation. We believe it is necessary but far from sufficient for an organization to have a higher purpose or a well-defined set of values. Many organizations promote a higher purpose and concomitant values through their corporate communication, but that does not mean the organization lives and breathes them. It certainly does not automatically bring high levels of employee engagement; Otherwise, we would not have a crisis of work engagement (Mann & Harter, 2016). Purpose and values should be actively propagated and discussed with employees and not remain empty vessels mainly to promote a companies’ public image, which happens a lot (cf. Urbany, 2005; Roth ,2013).
Motivation and engagement result from the dynamic interplay between organizational members in their various roles. Everyday reality is created by people who communicate with each other, either actively in dialogue or through any other means of communication, whether it be emails, social media, procedures, regulations, and the like (cf. Maturana & Varela, 1992; Shotter, 1993; Taylor, 1991; Winch, 1988). These conversational exchanges, and the dynamic social realities they constitute, leave a psychological imprint on its participants, be it the manager or the employee. For example, when participants feel their basic needs are nurtured, we observed that these exchanges likely have been autonomy-supportive. Or contrarily, when participants feel their needs are being frustrated or even thwarted, their well-being may decrease at the cost of motivation, engagement, and performance. The psychological quality and the integrity of the interaction, we argue, is a determining factor in building a healthy and inspiring work environment for which the satisfaction of basic psychological needs is indispensable.
It follows that it is essential to live and enact your purpose and values and to focus on the quality of the exchange between organizational members and the psychological context you set as leaders to facilitate that exchange, whether initiated at midlevel or from the top. Practically speaking this means ensuring active participation of all employees, involving and engaging them in meaningful dialogue in a psychologically safe setting. And while so doing, paying close attention to the fulfillment of their basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
For leadership, purpose, or values, it is all the same. For example, as with an organizational goal and a life’s purpose, values also carry a personal dimension, such as aspirations for a good life. And since we found that intrinsic preferences are associated with higher well-being and enhanced performance, it only seems logical to have a conversation about values. Before handing over the firm’s values statement, one may ask employees about their personal values, how they see themselves, what they aspire, and what they wish to contribute to the company’s goal. The dialogue about the employees’ value preferences, the organization’s values, and the broader organizational goal can help employees identify with the firm’s aspirations. Through meaningful and fulfilling dialogue they may find ways to contribute to its realization.
Specific suggestions to satisfy basic psychological needs can be found in the Table below (Table 1), in the introduction section (Chapter 1), and at the end of Chapter 2. Specific considerations to explore and address the organization’s purpose and raison d’être can be found in Chapter 3, which ends with a list of practical steps to evaluate its current purpose. Values and the impact of engaging leadership on value perceptions are discussed in Chapter 4, and specific lessons for leadership development programs and interventions are summarized in Chapter 5.
Some Practical Considerations for Engaging Leaders
|Engaging leaders foster||Core suggestions||May result in|
|Autonomy||Present a compelling vision, employees identify with; Always present a clear well-articulated reason why; Involve employees in decision making, allow for freedom of choice and space to self-direct; Invite to co-create.||Self-leadership, initiative, creativity, enthusiasm, perseverance, enhanced well-being and work engagement and autonomous motivation; Stimulates satisfaction of competence and relatedness as well|
|Competence||Frequent (positive) feedback; Atmosphere of joy, playful exploration, learning; Room and support for personal and professional growth; Provide interesting challenges||Positive atmosphere, sense of personal and professional growth, contribution, and significance|
|Relatedness||Make employees feel at home, listen well, ask (open ended) questions; Coach empathically, move with resistance; Allow space to disagree without repercussions; Be open and clear about objectives |
and show authentic care; Build meaningful relationships
|A sense of belonging and psychological safety, harmonious relationships, honesty and integrity|
|Purpose||Evaluate the firms’ broader corporate purpose beyond its financial strategy and performance: to what cause does the firm contribute? Involve stakeholders including employees; Actively discuss the larger purpose with stakeholders. Measure and report the impact on stakeholders. Integrate ethics into governance and ways of working||Increased work engagement and appeals to a sense of meaningfulness and significance. Stimulates autonomous motivation and satisfies basic psychological needs|
|Values||Enter into a meaningful dialogue on values with employees; Explore how employees perceive the organization’s values and how this aligns with their personal aspirations. A caring interpersonal environment; Making a meaningful contribution to something of value; To be challenged in interesting ways; To be offered opportunities for growth and self-development.||Leads to higher need satisfaction, work engagement and performance|
The central premise of the current thesis was to assess whether engaging leadership, a broader corporate objective and attentive care for values and the basic psychological needs of employees contribute to eudaimonic well-being and enhanced performance. We considered this important because current leadership studies do not pay much attention to a broader purpose (e.g., Kempster et al., 2011), its psychological effects (Parmar et al., 2017), or intrinsic values (Yukl, 2012). On the other hand, business studies (e.g., Henderson & Steen, 2015) and studies into corporate governance (e.g., Berger, 2019; Sjafjell & Taylor, 2019) do emphasize the necessity of purpose and values for a sustainable future for businesses, people, society and the environment. However, they do not focus om the underlying psychological process.
Instead of looking into leadership and its direct relationships with positive outcomes, we investigated the underlying process in an attempt to offer a psychological explanation rooted in a theory on (employee) motivation. As expected, we found that engaging leadership, embracing and communicating a higher purpose, and attending to employee value perceptions enhance work engagement and motivation through the satisfaction of basic psychological needs. Moreover, we found that need satisfaction—specifically autonomy satisfaction—explained over half of the variance in motivation and engagement outcomes.
The importance of human motivation in explaining leadership outcomes underscores that leadership is about process and context rather than resulting from the leaders’ personality, character, or behaviors. When the leadership context is positive, nourishing, and supportive, it stimulates personal growth and development, promotes self-direction and well-being, and increases performance. Following self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2017) and Ciulla (2018), we believe it is the task of leadership to create the social, psychological, and material conditions under which people flourish and can be productive.
Work may encourage and support people to self-actualize in their journey through life, as Maslow (1998) suggested. And why not? After all, work has become central to people’s sense of meaning and significance. It is about time that organizations adjust to that reality. Engaging leaders can shape a work context where human beings flourish, grow, learn, and self-develop professionally and personally. Employees value contributing to meaningful outcomes beyond their immediate self-interest and make the world a better place. They find joy in exciting challenges and maintaining meaningful relationships in an environment of genuine care. They fare well when engaged and involved. And, finally, a wider awareness and enactment on a broader purpose adds to people’s sense of agency and personal significance and may support human beings to fulfil their potential in dignity and equality.