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Developing Strong Leaders

Strong leaders are the cornerstone of employee engagement, motivation, and organizational performance. Building strong leaders takes a significant investment of time, energy, and commitment, but the rewards are huge.

Strong Leaders

Krüger & Rootman conducted empirical research on 400 small businesses. Their findings supported what many other researchers have concluded for decades: strong leaders are essential for employee satisfaction and commitment.1

Strong leadership is about having the desire, passion, and ability to proactively identify and address the needs of employees to achieve the intended results.

The Direct Supervisor is the Key

Strong leadership is crucial at every level of the organization.  However, research has consistently revealed that the direct supervisor is the key to employee engagement, satisfaction, and commitment.  This is true whether the supervisor is a seasoned executive or an entry-level supervisor.

Clinebell et al. cited the work of Yummarino and Dubinsky (1992) which asserts that the supervisor is one of the most important factors influencing employee attitudes about the workplace.2

Furthermore, the leadership style of the direct supervisor significantly shapes the quality of the supervisor-employee relationship.  For companies and organizations that want to create great workplaces, building strong leaders must be a focal point.

The Four Leadership Styles of Supportive Accountability™

“The Supportive Accountability Leadership Model™ frames performance management using four basic leadership styles determined by how much leaders strike a delicate balance between support and accountability. These four styles are depicted below based on high and low levels of supportiveness and accountability.”3

“Leaders can operate anywhere in the continuum between high and low for both supportiveness and accountability, and the amount of support and accountability required will vary from situation to situation.”4

  1. Unsupportive Accountability is characterized by high levels of accountability and low levels of supportiveness. Leaders with this style demand high performance but don’t provide the necessary tools, equipment, and emotional support employees need to achieve it. This type of accountability can create a harsh, intimidating, and uncaring environment for employees.”5
  2. Supportive Unaccountability is demonstrated by high levels of supportiveness and low levels of accountability. Leaders who operate with a high degree of supportive unaccountability tend to worry too much about being liked and making employees happy. They have difficulty holding themselves and their employees accountable for meeting organizational goals and priorities.”6
  3. Total Avoidance is the absence of both supportiveness and accountability. This is a hands-off approach, where leaders relinquish their responsibility to lead, guide, inspire, and hold themselves and their employees accountable for meeting goals… Instead of getting ahead of problems, they operate in a reactive mode and only spring into action when fires erupt.”7
  4. Supportive Accountability is the most effective performance management style. It embodies a high level of supportiveness complemented by a high level of accountability… Effective leaders provide the right amount of support and accountability based on each situation. When performance isn’t quite up to par, they don’t look for a person to blame, but rather seek to uncover the underlying causes and to provide the support necessary for success.”8

Strong leadership is paramount for creating an environment that motivates employees and promotes strong performance.  Leaders that are highly engaged and proactive in their leadership roles are able to motivate and engage employees.  On the contrary, leaders who are passive, avoid their responsibilities, and operate in a reactive mode create a demotivating and disengaging environment.

Strong Leadership is a Skill

The great news is that strong leadership is a skill that can be learned and refined over time.  Companies and organizations that are serious about employee engagement and strong performance outcomes can deliberately hire, develop, and engage their leaders to create motivating, engaging, and high-performing environments.


The most important step in creating a strong leadership team is to hire the right people with the right talent for the right roles.  Get this wrong and the rest will be an uphill battle. Get this right and, while you will still need to exert effort in the development process, it will be a much more rewarding experience for both you and the leader.

Even if you already missed the mark on this important piece, it is not too late to work with the leader to make it right. How this will unfold depends on each specific situation.  It will take significant commitment, time, and energy, but the damage can be repaired.


Get crystal clear on what you expect, and transfer this knowledge to your leadership team. What are your organization’s vision and mission? What are your values? What leadership approach do you expect?  This is not about micromanagement.  This is about establishing and continuously reinforcing a clear leadership philosophy for your organization.

What type of culture are leaders expected to craft, promote, and reinforce? What are each leader’s measurable goals, objectives, and deliverables? Last, but most definitely not least, what does your leadership team need and expect from you?

Talent Development

Think about the mindset and skills that are required to meet these expectations and map out a talent development plan to instill these into your organizational culture.

Depending on your goals, priorities, and capacity, you can leverage your existing training resources, develop additional internal training, or seek outside assistance. If you’re looking for an effective leadership training and development program, we provide some options:


Evaluate your leadership team’s progress in meeting the expectations and determine the appropriate course of action.  Have individual and group conversations with your leadership team members and their employees.  Observe their operations and get a feel for the environment.

Review performance data, customer satisfaction information, and other key performance indicators.  Avail yourself of a variety of assessment tools to gather additional insights.  However, keep in mind that data is only part of the picture.  There is always a story behind the numbers, and knowing that story is essential to making an accurate evaluation.  Getting input from the people on the front line is a good way to start understanding the story.


Give and receive continuous feedback. The open, honest, and supportive sharing of information will help you build strong supervisor-employee relationships with the leaders you supervise.  Having continuous conversations and interactions is an essential part of leadership development, yours and theirs.

This can include formal feedback conferences, informational conversations, quick huddles, and the use of technology to communicate. The important thing is to be accessible and to communicate effectively.  Feedback, if handled properly, is a great tool for reinforcing what is expected and for building leadership muscles and confidence.


Feedback is also an opportunity for you to discover the needs of your leadership team members and provide the necessary support to meet these needs.  Whether the needs revolve around tools, equipment, guidance, or emotional support, it is vital to uncover them and do your best to meet them.

It is also important to communicate with your leadership team your progress in addressing their needs. If you run into roadblocks, be transparent and share that information as much as you are ethically able to do so; it will go a long way in building trust.

Accountability and Recognition

Accountability is a vital part of performance management. Likewise, recognition is a powerful tool for rewarding and promoting great performance. These two tools are also available for building strong leaders.

Continuous Improvement

Leadership is an ongoing journey that will never end.  The moment leaders think they have mastered the art of leadership is the moment their continuous improvement and growth will end.

Great leaders are self-aware and continuously self-reflect, because human nature guarantees that they will make mistakes. We have all been there before, and we will be there again. The key is to learn from these mistakes and to commit to becoming stronger leaders because of them.

Developing strong organizational leadership takes time and effort, but the investment will yield high returns in terms of employee engagement, motivation, and tangible  results.

SYLVIA MELENA is the Founder and CEO of Melena Consulting Group and the award-winning author of Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance.

The Supportive Accountability Leadership™ Program

Sylvia’s signature Supportive Accountability Leadership™ Program will help you develop strong leaders that engage employees, promote accountability, and boost performance.

1Krüger, J. & Rootman, C. (2010). How do small business managers influence employee satisfaction and commitment?  Acta Commercii,10(1). pp. 59 – 72. Retrieved from http://www.actacommercii.co.za/index.php/acta/article/viewFile/114/114. Creative Commons License.
2 Clinebell, S., Skudiene, V., Trijonyte, R., and Reardon, J. (2013). Impact of leadership styles on employee organizational commitment. Journal of Service Science, 6(1), pp. 139-152.  ISSN 1941-4730. Retrieved from: http://cluteinstitute.com/ojs/index.php/JSS/article/view/8244. Date accessed: January 20, 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.19030/jss.v6i1.8244Creative Commons License.
3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Melena, Sylvia. “The Heart of Supportive Accountability.” Chap. 1 in Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance. La Mesa, CA: Melena Consulting Group, 2018.

The Power of Employee Recognition

Employee recognition is a powerful tool for engaging employees, promoting great organizational performance, and achieving customer service excellence. It is a vital element that influences employee motivation.

Seven Elements of Employee Motivation

In the previous post, we reviewed the research conducted by Krüger & Rootman which focused on the following seven elements of employee motivation:

  1. Interesting and Meaningful Work
  2. Recognition and Feedback
  3. Employee Involvement
  4. Working Conditions
  5. Strong Leaders
  6. Company Policies and Environment
  7. Compensation[1]

We also touched on Element 1 – Interesting and Meaningful Work.   In this post, we will go over the second element, recognition and feedback.

Element 2 – Recognition and Feedback

Krüger and Rootman’s research determined that, of the seven elements above, recognition and feedback was the second most influential in terms of employee motivation.[2] Recognition and feedback are ways of letting employees know that their contributions in the workplace matter and do not go unappreciated.

The Impact of Employee Recognition

When leaders make employees feel valued, appreciated and supported, they have a positive impact on overall employee satisfaction and mental health.  This positive impact empowers and mentally strengthens employees, giving them resilience against the demands of the job and the associated pressures and stress (McLean 1999, Huxley 205).[3]  The more leaders build their employees’ resilience through recognition and positive feedback, the more employees have the strength and motivation to handle the challenges that come along the way.

Employee recognition is also one of the most powerful tools managers and supervisors can use to improve customer satisfaction. Employee recognition promotes satisfied and motivated employees who, in turn, effectively serve and satisfy customers.[4] And satisfied customers have a direct, positive impact on your company’s bottom line.

Another added benefit of employee recognition is that it reinforces what is important to the company in terms of expectations, priorities, and values. By recognizing employees, managers and supervisors send a very clear message about what really matters to the organization.

Effective Employee Recognition

For recognition and praise to be effective, you can’t let it go on auto pilot.  Recognition needs to be genuine, meaningful and thoughtful.   Nelson (2001) determined that the most powerful employee recognition is immediate, valuable to the employee, and provided for real accomplishments.[5]

Timely, Specific, and Meaningful

When you recognize employees, be timely and specific and do it for something that has real meaning.  As soon as you observe great performance, take the time to give recognition and praise.  Point out the specific action and why it is worthy of praise.  Avoid simply relying on easy phrases like “great job” and “good work.”  While there is nothing wrong with including these types of phrases in your recognition, they alone do not sound either sincere or meaningful.

For recognition to have an impact, you will need to exert a little more effort and add the specifics.  For example, you may write:  “Jane, thank you for dropping everything to help us meet the grant application deadline! I know it was a last-minute request, and yet you jumped right in with a cheerful attitude. I truly appreciate your teamwork and expertise in helping us acquire the funds to help more families in need!”  I know this will take more time and thought. However, it will let Jane know that her contribution and sacrifice did not go unnoticed and will reinforce the mission of the organization.


Recognition and positive feedback need to be frequent.  It is not sufficient to recognize employees at the annual employee recognition event.  Even once a  quarter and once a month are not enough. For recognition to engage and motivate in a powerful way, it must be ingrained into your culture.  It must flow continuously from supervisor to employee, employee to supervisor, and peer to peer.  It must flow out genuine gratitude and fill the atmosphere.


Recognition also needs to be personalized. You must get to know your employees and find out what type of recognition is meaningful to each individual. For instance, when it comes to formal recognition, some employees may be thrilled to receive it in the spotlight of a big employee recognition event, while others would be horrified of a public display.  Likewise, some employees prefer money, while others may enjoy some time off.

To be effective at recognizing your employees, you need to spend some time to get to know them as individuals. Recognition that is not given appropriately can have an adverse effect and demotivate the employee.


Recognition does not have to be costly. It can take on a variety of forms, such as a “thank you” e-mail, quick hand-written note, verbal acknowledgement, and more formalized awards. It can happen at the individual or group level.  The bottom line is that employees need to feel that their contributions towards the goals of the organization are acknowledged and appreciated.[6]

Managers and supervisors need to be aware of the great work their employees are doing and demonstrate ongoing appreciation for their contributions and successes. Recognition comes naturally to some, but is not as easy for others. If you find yourself in the latter group, you can intentionally develop a mindset of praise.

At first, some may need to actually add reminders to their calendars to recognize and praise employees. However, as they intentionally practice recognition and positive feedback, it will become part of who they are as leaders. With this new mindset of praise, they will be able to foster a motivating work environment.


[1] Krüger, J. & Rootman, C. (2010). How do small business managers influence employee satisfaction and commitment?  Acta Commercii,10(1). pp. 59 – 72.
Retrieved from http://www.actacommercii.co.za/index.php/acta/article/viewFile/114/114. Creative Commons License.

[2] Krüger & Rootman, 2010.

[3] Jessen, J.T. (2010).  Job satisfaction and social rewards in the social services.  Journal of Comparative Social Work, 5(1), pp. 1 – 18.  Retrieved from:  http://journal.uia.no/index.php/JCSW/article/view/215/150. Creative Commons License.

[4] Skudiene, V., Everhart, D. D., Slepikaite, K., & Reardon, J. (2013).  Front-line employees’ recognition and empowerment effect on retail bank customers’ perceived value. Journal of Service Science 6(1), pp. 105 – 116.  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.19030/jss.v6i1.8241.   Creative Commons License.

[5] Skudiene et al., 2013.

[6] Krüger & Rootman, 2010.

Seven Elements of Employee Motivation

The ability to move the dial on employee motivation is not a “nice to do.” It’s a vital skill for managers and supervisors.

Employee motivation is the stepping stone to employee engagement and strong organizational performance.

So how do you motivate employees?  The truth is you don’t. However, you can create a motivating work environment by focusing both on the overall work culture and individual employee motivation.

Creating a Motivating Work Culture

Research conducted by Krüger & Rootman involving over 400 small businesses focused on seven elements1 that help you rock the work culture.

The Seven Elements of Employee Motivation

The seven elements are listed below in order from those with the greatest to the lowest level of influence on employee motivation:

  1. Interesting and Meaningful Work2 Meaningful work is the most important workplace motivator for employees. Help employees see how the work they do is meaningful and makes a difference.
  2. Recognition and Feedback 3Provide regular feedback to employees about their performance and leverage the power of employee recognition.  
  3. Empowerment4Empower employees. Give them the freedom and strength to look beyond the status quo and champion excellence.
  4. Working Conditions5Intentionally create a workplace with great working conditions on the physical, social, and psychological levels. Working conditions include the atmosphere of the workplace, equipment, work hours, and other support factors. However, the most important source of support you can provide employees is a strong supervisor-employee relationship.
  5. Strong Leadership6Strong leaders are the cornerstone of employee motivation, engagement, and performance. Focus your resources on developing strong leaders that leverage both support and accountability to engage employees and drive performance.
  6. Workplace Justice and Fairness7Promote an environment of workplace justice and fairness in the way you distribute resources, make decisions, and interact with employees.
  7. Rewards8Money doesn’t buy employee motivation. To create a truly motivating work environment, employ a more holistic approach in your rewards structure. Consider the “total rewards” approach.

While these seven elements will help you create a workplace atmosphere conducive to employee motivation, it’s also vital to focus on what motivates each person individually.

Individual Employee Motivation

Employee motivation is not a “one size fits all” proposition.

Individualizing Your Approach

Each employee is unique and requires an individualized approach.  This uniqueness underscores the need to establish strong supervisor-employee relationships and to get to know each employee on a personal level while keeping it professional. 

By getting to know their employees, managers and supervisors can develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for their values, needs, concerns, priorities, desires, fears, and hopes, which are all essential to motivation.

Talking with People

Talking with employees and doing a lot of listening is a great way to get to know them.  It’s also a simple way to build relationships. You can find out a lot about what a person values just by having conversations.

Motivation Assessments

Assessments are also excellent tools to find out what motivates individuals on a deeper level. For instance, the Motivators assessment measures seven universal dimensions of employee motivation –- theoretical, regulatory, individualistic, altruistic, political, economic, and aesthetic.

Employee Ownership

Leaders don’t have complete control over employee motivation.  Employees themselves play an essential role in their own motivation through how they chose to view and respond to the world and the workplace.  There are also other factors beyond the control of managers and supervisors that influence motivation.

However, managers and supervisors have the opportunity and responsibility to impact that which is within their sphere of influence. Understanding the seven elements listed above and what motivates each person can help them work towards fulfilling this responsibility.

SYLVIA MELENA is the Founder and CEO of Melena Consulting Group and the award-winning author of Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance.

Want to Create a Motivating and High-Performing Workplace?

Sylvia’s signature Supportive Accountability Leadership™ Program will equip your leaders to create a motivating work environment while promoting accountability and improving performance.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Krüger, J. & Rootman, C. (2010). How do small business managers influence employee satisfaction and commitment?  Acta Commercii,10(1). pp. 59 - 72. Retrieved from http://www.actacommercii.co.za/index.php/acta/article/viewFile/114/114. Creative Commons License. 

Creating a High-Performance Work Culture

The research is clear.  An organization’s work culture impacts performance outcomes.

Decades of research demonstrates that organizations that achieve and sustain performance excellence have the following characteristics ingrained into their work cultures:

  • Vision  – They have leaders who effectively articulate the organization’s vision and mission. They engage employees in advancing the vision by promoting pride, ownership, and accountability;
  • Risk-Taking – High-performing organizations have bold leaders who are not afraid to take calculated risks. This does not mean abandoning wisdom or acting unethically. However, organizations can’t be risk averse;
  • Team Orientation – They actively promote a team-oriented environment where employees are truly free to talk about issues and work together towards consensus-building to achieve results; and
  • Flexible Oversight – High-performing organizations have strong oversight that ensures efficient implementation of key initiatives and changes. However, they are not rigid. They demonstrate the necessary openness and flexibility that supports creativity and innovation.[i]

A study conducted by Cartsens and Barnes arrived at similar findings. This study found correlations between the following leadership behaviors and both the quality of the leader-employee relationship and great organizational performance:

  • Vision – Forward-thinking leaders help employees see the vision for the future. They are able to engage employees and get them excited about the direction their organization is headed
  • Accountability – Leaders who are fully committed to accountability drive performance. This includes accountability at all levels of the organization — accountability for employees as well as accountability for leaders. Effective accountability requires leaders to set the example;\
  • Team Decision-Making – Eliciting input from employees and giving them a voice in the decision-making process empowers them to make a difference. This, in turn, gives employees a vested interest in advancing the organization’s success and meeting performance goals. The ultimate responsibility for the decision rests with the leader. However, wise leaders know that some of the best ideas come from those on the front line;
  • Trust Building – Trust is the foundation of a strong leader-employee relationship. To establish trust, a leader must demonstrate integrity and create a safe environment.[ii]

Companies and organizations have long understood that having strong leadership is vital to creating a culture that achieves and sustains great performance. However, building strong leadership teams has been difficult for many, especially in light of the many competing priorities their leaders are faced with.

The good news is that the research provides insights into a handful of key elements that leaders at all levels of the organization can focus on to achieve and sustain performance excellence.  By focusing on four key areas – Vision, Accountability, Team Decision-Making, and Trust Building – organizations can create a high-performance work culture.


[i] Curteanu, D. & Constantin, I. (2010).  “Organizational culture diagnosis – a new model.  Manager, 11(1), pp. 15-16.  ISSN: 1453-0503 (Print); 2286-170X (Online). Retrieved from https://doaj.org/article/10e8356e77424c779a0d10bb54bfc51fCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License.

[ii] Carstens, F.J. & Barnes, N. (2006).  “The Quality of Leader/Employee Relationship.” SA Journal of Human Resource Management; 4(2), p. 18.  Retrieved from http://www.sajhrm.co.za/index.php/sajhrm/article/view/92.   Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License.

Employee Engagement Pays Off

My definition of an engaged employee is “an employee who takes ownership of the success of the organization and demonstrates initiative to positively transform the workplace.” This definition asserts that an engaged employee is fully vested in the success of his or her organization and actively participates in making it the best that it can be.

A lot has been written about employee engagement by academia, business, and consultancy and extensive scientific research has been conducted on the subject for many decades.  While the research has produced various definitions of employee engagement, the findings consistently indicate that engagement has measurable positive impact on the organization.

The research has also consistently affirmed that the supervisor-employee relationship is the cornerstone of employee engagement and that managers and supervisors hold the keys to creating a culture that either engages or disengages employees.

According to the research, managers and supervisors who create an engaging environment achieve higher levels of:

  • Employee retention,
  • Productivity,
  • Company growth and profits,
  • Employee willingness and ability to advance organizational priorities, and
  • Customer loyalty and satisfaction.[1]

The contrary is also true.  Managers and supervisors who lack either the skill or desire to create a great work environment have a negative impact on employee engagement. This, in turn, is detrimental to the well-being of the organization, its employees, and its customers.

Thus, it is to every organization’s best interest to ensure that managers and supervisors are equipped with the skills and motivation to engage employees.

Researchers have developed numerous assessments and profiles to help companies develop and execute strategies to strengthen employee engagement. However, in order for these tools to be effective, managers and supervisors must have proficiency in the tools and have the capability and motivation to plan, develop, implement and evaluate the corresponding employee engagement strategies.

Regardless of the tools and strategies used, the bottom line is that employee engagement is not optional.  It is vital for the success and well-being of every organization, its employees and its customers.

[1] Jensen, O.B. (2012).  “The engagement of employees as a key to corporate success.”  Dynamic Relationships Management Journal, 1(2), pp. 45 – 56.  DOI 10.17708/DRMJ.2012.v01n02a05.  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.