How Leadership Style Impacts Motivation

How do you motivate employees?

We tend address this question in the most general sense.

What increases people’s motivation? What decreases motivation?

In that case, you might want to think about effective management styles, rewards and incentives, or an employee recognition program.


But it’s not quite that simple. After all, there are different types of motivation.

To find out how leaders motivate employees, we first need to know what really motivates leaders.



2 Basic Types of motivation

Think about motivation in terms of where it is focused.

  • Promotion motivation: A focus on goals and ambitions, achieving desirable outcomes in the future.
  • Prevention motivation: A focus on duties and responsibilities, avoiding or preventing undesirable outcomes.


Imagine two versions of a basketball player up for a free-throw

  • “I hope this makes it!”
  • “Don’t miss, don’t miss, don’t miss…”



Leaders and managers focus their motivation in different ways.

For example, one manager might be focused on making more sales.

Another manager might focus their attention on not missing sales quotas.


One manager might be focused on creating a great product.

Another manager might focus their attention on not missing specs and deadlines.


Of course, both motivational styles can be more or less useful, depending on the situation.


What motivates leaders, thus motivates workers

A recent series of studies found that a leader’s motivational focus “rubs off” on workers.

The effects don’t happen immediately. Over the first few months of working together, an employee’s motivational focus becomes more and more similar to their manager’s.

  • Promotion-focused managers tend to have promotion-focused workers.
  • Prevention-focused managers tend to have prevention-focused workers.


The research also discovered how motivational styles are best transferred, through leadership styles:

Transformational leadership (leaders share a vision for the future, set goals, and hold positive expectations about their followers) tends to transmit promotion focus from managers to workers.

Management by exception (leaders are hands-off unless problems arise) tends to transmit prevention focus from managers to workers.

Contingent punishment (such as when errors and mistakes result in reprimands and penalties) is an especially powerful way to transmit prevention focus from managers to workers.

Contingent rewards (such as performance incentives or employee recognition programs) tend to increase the transmission of either motivational focus to workers.

Perhaps most interestingly, laissez-faire leadership (where leaders let workers make most decisions among themselves) is especially likely when managers aren’t all that strongly focused on promotion or prevention.


These different styles can each be a good thing, or they can be a bad thing. It really depends on the context.

Knowing which types of motivation are most beneficial is an important first step.

Understanding how motivation is transferred from leaders to followers shows us how it can actually happen.




Image credits: Eric Wong, Sunfall, USAG-Humphreys

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