We know leaders have a significant impact on just about every aspect of an organization, including everything from culture and core values to engagement and retention.
One of the main ways leaders impact engagement and retention is through the employee experience.
Leaders play a critical role in shaping employee experience. Their interactions with employees, the culture they create, the values they espouse, and the “talk they walk” significantly impact employees’ well-being, engagement, and productivity. Creating a positive employee experience ensures positive outcomes.
This article will explore how leaders can create a positive employee experience and the approaches and techniques they can use to engage, motivate, and retain their best and brightest and achieve positive organizational outcomes.
How Leaders Shape Employee Experience
There are six key so-called “hard” and “soft” skills leaders can leverage to shape how employees interpret their work journeys and their interactions within an organization.
These include providing structure and clarity; dependability; instilling purpose and meaning; informational, procedural, and interpersonal respect; empathy; and fostering psychological safety.
Let’s take a look at each.
1. Providing structure and clarity
According to research conducted by Effectory, a leading employee feedback platform in Europe, employees who report having high role clarity—defined as “a clear understanding of their tasks, responsibility, and processes at work”—are:
- 86% more likely to be effective
- 84% more likely to stay with the organization
- 83% more likely to be productive
- 75% more likely to be satisfied with the organization’s leadership
Leaders who clearly articulate employees’ roles and responsibilities are more likely to have employees who report having a good employee experience.
In short: Structure and clarity matter.
Caution: Be wary of providing so much detail that employees feel “micromanaged.”
Can employees depend on the people they report to? Part of a highly satisfactory employee experience is knowing that an organization’s leaders are dependable, can be counted on to do what they say they’re going to do, and will consistently step in to support and assist employees when needed.
In short: Employees want you to be consistently dependable.
Caution: Be wary of being “too helpful” by giving employees the answers rather than coaching them to find them on their own.
3. Instilling purpose and meaning
A few decades ago, just having a job that paid a living wage and offered health insurance was enough for most employees. Today’s Millennial and Gen Z workers—who will comprise more than 60% of the U.S. workforce in 2025—are looking for much more in our current era of unprecedented “full employment.”
Workers under 40 want to work for organizations that have a purpose beyond profits and driving shareholder value. Purpose-driven companies like Patagonia (which gives back to the earth), Alaska Airlines (which invests in renewable biofuels), and IBM (which builds smarter cities) allow employees to feel like they’re making a positive difference in the world—and they’re more likely to report having a positive employee experience as a result.
In short: Employees want to know that their work has a positive impact beyond just making money for themselves or their organization.
Caution: Be wary of promoting lofty aspirations without backing them up with real action.
4. Informational, procedural, and interpersonal respect
Do employees receive information that’s timely, complete, and truthful? Are the organization’s procedures and decision-making processes transparent and fair? Do leaders, immediate supervisors, and managers treat every employee with dignity? These three forms of respect can make or break the employee experience.
Leaders who prioritize informational and procedural respect—who communicate clearly and honestly with their employees—generate a sense of transparency, encourage feedback, and create opportunities for learning and growth. By promoting open communication, leaders can build a culture of accountability, where employees feel empowered to take ownership of their work and learn from their mistakes.
Similarly, leaders who embody interpersonal respect—who treat employees as individuals, value their contributions, and recognize their worth—are more likely to create a positive work experience. Research consistently indicates that employees who feel respected by their leadership are more likely to be loyal and contribute to the organization’s success.
In short: Provide employees with the information they need to do their jobs as expected and to the best of their abilities. Ensure employees feel that policies and procedures are fair, and treat everyone with respect regardless of level.
Caution: Don’t assume the Golden Rule is enough when it comes to respect. Employ the Platinum Rule as well: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.
In 2011, Google set out to reverse-engineer “the perfect team.” In its two-year internal analysis known as Project Aristotle, Google surveyed 180 teams of engineers and managers to isolate the characteristics that made its A-teams most effective.
The findings were surprising. Google found that the top teams at Google excelled at “soft” skills, such as empathy. What mattered wasn’t technical prowess but how people in a group treated one another.
What can leaders take from Google’s revelations? Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is a crucial trait for leaders who want to create a positive employee experience. Leaders who demonstrate empathy show that they care about their employees’ well-being, understand their challenges, and are willing to support them.
In short: By listening actively, showing genuine interest, and responding with compassion, leaders can build strong relationships with employees, earn their trust, and create a sense of belonging.
Caution: Be aware that sympathy is about pity for someone’s situation, while empathy is understanding how someone else feels.
6. Fostering psychological safety
Employees excel in environments of psychological safety. A psychologically safe culture is one where employees are comfortable taking interpersonal risks, such as voicing an unpopular opinion, without fear of retaliation or being labeled as “disruptive” or “not a team player.” When employees feel heard and understood, without the worry of self-protection, they can focus their energies on their work.
Leaders who encourage and listen to diverse perspectives and opinions, who clamp down on negative labeling, and who ensure that dialogues are respectful, even when discussing controversial topics, make their teams feel safe, which calms employee conflict, reduces employee turnover, and results in better business outcomes.
In short: Creating a psychologically safe environment for your team is one of the most effective ways of positively impacting the employee experience.
Caution: Avoid having a “too nice” culture where no one is willing to provide direct feedback.
The Bottom Line
The role of leaders in shaping the employee experience cannot be overstated.
Leaders who clearly articulate roles and responsibilities, remain dependable, promote the organization’s higher purpose, openly communicate, demonstrate respect and empathy, and create open-minded, safe cultures create work environments that foster well-being, engagement, and productivity.
Leaders set the tone for a thriving organization. And they directly shape and mold the employee experience.
Gregg Ward is the founder and executive director of the Center for Respectful Leadership and a bestselling, award-winning author, speaker, facilitator, and executive coach. He’s on a mission to transform lives and organizations through respect and respectful leadership; he’s developed and delivered over 2,500 keynote presentations and talks, training programs, seminars, webinars, and workshops in North America, Europe, and the Middle East for groups ranging in size from 12 to 2,000. His many clients include ADP, Ericsson, Ford, Harley-Davidson, Intel, Kaiser Permanente, Qualcomm, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Labor, and Warner Bros. Studios. His second book, The Respectful Leader: Seven Ways to Influence Without Intimidation, is an Amazon bestseller, an Amazon Editors’ “Best Book of the Month,” and a 2018 Axiom Business Book Awards Gold Medal Winner. Its new, follow-up release, Restoring Respect (Winding Creek Press; February 1, 2023), is a must-have guide for repairing broken work relationships. Learn more at RestoringRespectBook.com.