Tackling engagement and leadership with meta-analysis

In Stephane Michaud's latest piece, he talks about the benefits for HR in using data from multiple studies rather than a single research.

Stephane Michaud is host of HRM Asia's The Academic View forum. He regularly contributes articles and discussion on the ways science can help HR become even more effective in its role.

“Papa, how do people choose their jobs?” asks my daughter, pondering career moves as a 9-year old. I love these questions because they always help me question fundamental beliefs or thought patterns by reexamining the world anew.

Of course, there is always the choice to respond “I really don’t know” (which is closest to the truth) or “people choose what they like” (when I want to go back to my boxing match), but most of the time, I’ll try to share what I’ve learned from science and squeeze it into “small words” to borrow a term from a famous Peter Gabriel song. I do this partly to impart wisdom on my daughter and partly to help clarify my thoughts, my point of view on a topic. 

Baloney busting

In this age of data overload, where access to internet and social media is ubiquitous, it has become too easy to voice opinions and present them as facts to the world. One only has to sample a few forums on the internet to realise how much damage well-intended but poorly researched advice can cause to desperate readers. The truth is that the twin evils of “fake news” and “alternative facts” have been upon us for ages. We used to call these things (and I still do) grade A baloney.

As an evidence-based evangelist and practitioner, it is part of my mission in life to promote a healthy science diet as free as possible from luncheon meat. A number of hot HR topics are so rife with misguided opinions that they’d rightfully belong in the deli section of the finest supermarkets. Today let me pick on two of my favorite subjects: employee engagement and leadership. 


Engagement surveys are big business. Because they need to be conducted regularly, they are seen as excellent revenue generators for consultancies. The basic premise underlying this service is that the driving factors of engagement greatly vary across countries, industries and companies. In an effort to improve the result/ effort ratio for our engagement surveys across the region, I searched far and wide for relevant meta-analysis. I wanted to test the above premise and identify factors that could universally affect employee engagement regardless of what they were doing or where they were doing it. Here is what I found:

  1. Personality factors are strong drivers of engagement: How we select employees can have a major influence on organisation engagement outcomes. In other words, what we do before employees join the organisation could be what matters the most. The most important traits to select for? Diligence (conscientiousness) and Positive Affect/Extroversion. Select for these two traits and you not only improve your odds for great job performance but provide a major shot in the arm in terms of employee engagement.
  2. Work design is key to employee engagement:
    1. Task Variety: Having a job that allows the employee to do something new and to regularly break the routine leads to more engagement. Novelty and learning are big human motivators and they apply to work as well. I have witnessed this first hand in a manufacturing plant where they agreed to use job rotations between three main processes as a way to improve work processes and enhance productivity. The opportunity to learn something new and to use different skills proved to be a huge boost to engagement.
    2. Task Significance: It turns out that it’s not really what you do that matters but mostly how you perceive it contributes to a higher purpose. We should not under-estimate the need for meaning in our lives and the ability of the company (and of the employee) to link each and everyone’s job to a higher purpose has been shown to be associated with greater engagement. Whenever I can, I make it a point to educate leaders in the importance of linking employee roles with the bigger picture.
  3. Calm, Connection, and Contentment: A work environment which provides jobs with the right amount of challenge and responsibility, which is free from excessive politics and emotional conflicts, and which fosters a sense of belonging is associated with a highly engaged workforce.

Are there other idiosyncratic factors at play that may help explain and contribute to employee engagement? Absolutely. And this is why there is a viable and important role for regular engagement surveys. However, if you first concentrate your energies on the three categories above, you’ll be investing wisely in your quest for a stellar and engaged workforce.


Leadership is even bigger business! Everyone and their cat seem to have a firm opinion on how to select for and develop leadership. Given the importance of the topic, it is amazing how little attention is given to solid evidence on how to select and “build” leaders. Here’s what a meta-analysis published in a leading academic journal found:

Leaders are born not made (or vice versa): Actually, leader behaviours tend to explain more variance in leadership effectiveness than leader traits, but results indicate that a combined model where leader behaviors mediate the relationship between leader traits and effectiveness is more accurate. So here you go, the answer is “both”, with “made” being more important in the balance than “born”.

Key behaviours predicting leadership effectiveness:

  1. Developing, initiating, communicating a vision for change (transformational leadership)
  2. Laissez-faire (or passive leadership, negative relationship)
  3. Expressing concern and respect for team, being friendly and approachable
  4. Clarifying expectations and contingent rewards

Key traits predicting leadership effectiveness:



  1. Extraversion and Conscientiousness, and to a lesser degree;
  2. Emotional Stability and Openness to Experience.

Once I’ve thoroughly researched a topic, my job is to plant seeds in our executives by presenting findings at important meetings and seminars, and to integrate these findings in the advice that HLA gives to our MC offices and group companies. Got the science bug? Itching to know more? Drop me a line and I can share detailed references for the research and how we apply it internally. 

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