new research in building employee loyalty

Historically, it was assumed that the way to build employee loyalty was to encourage good working relationships, treat staff with respect and show concern for their wellbeing.

However, new research from the University of Exeter, to the surprise of many, suggests otherwise.

Dr Allan Lee and co-authors found that the importance followers place in their relationships with leaders explains their choice to stay with a firm more powerfully than metrics of relationship quality.

The perception of a manager or leader as "important" appears to be the primary driver of loyalty rather than the quality of the relationship alone.

This finding might explain the exasperation of some managers when trying to reduce expensive employee turnover.

It’s not enough merely to build quality relationships with staff: employees have to feel that they are working under a leader worthy of their followership.

Researchers found that when employees saw their relationship with their manager as important, they felt additional psychological empowerment from a good quality relationship.

The perceived importance of the manager boosted the positive effect of a healthy relationship more than a healthy relationship alone.

Why this is the case is not entirely clear. One explanation might be that employees feel more satisfied in their positions when they have reason to ascribe worth to their superiors (in addition to positive sentiment).

Workers may yearn for leaders whom they can trust, admire, and work to emulate. Moreover, this can lead to improvements in performance and productivity.

The implications for business leaders are interesting, both from a personal and business perspective. 

Leaders Should Avoid Self-Deprecation

There’s a tendency for some leaders to want to use false humility in the hope of gaining the respect of the people under them.

But although well-intentioned, this may be counterproductive and ultimately undermine loyalty.

Employees, it seems, want to work for people they perceive as important, perhaps because they think that they will be more thoroughly rewarded in the future.

A leader who self-attacks or doesn’t appear confident may undermine staff perceptions of their importance, encouraging them to look elsewhere.

Leaders Should Present Their Goals And Ambitions As Important

One of the reasons that staff may see leaders as important is that they represent values or goals that must be achieved.

Elon Musk, for instance is an important leader according to many people who work for Tesla and SpaceX because he is trying to achieve essential goals for humanity, like the transition to sustainable transportation.

In light of present research, leaders would be wise to take a leaf out of Mr Musk’s book and set themselves up as quasi-saviours, solving critical problems in the world. 

Leaders Should Make Their Achievements Clear

Finally, the new research from the University of Exeter suggests that leaders should talk about their qualifications, experience and achievements and use these to convince employees about their quality.

Rather than putting employees off, repeating this information could encourage them to view the leader as both someone qualified to carry out their role and important too. 

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.