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Leadership and engagement

Leadership can have a substantial positive or negative effect on the workplace. Good leadership can substantially enhance the work experience while poor leadership can have a profoundly negative effect on the workplace and workforce.

Figure 2.4 compares employee engagement scores from 2011 to 2013. While there was a decrease in scores for job, team and supervisor from 2011 to 2012, there were improvements across all four components of employee engagement in 2013, markedly so in the case of engagement with the supervisor. Given the tight fiscal climate and the beginnings of possible APS workforce reductions, this is a particularly positive result.

Figure 2.4 APS employee engagement levels, 2011 to 2013

Source: Employee census, 2012 APS employee census, 2011 employee survey

Immediate supervisor and SES capabilities

Overall, employee satisfaction with immediate supervisor capability remained high in 2013. Seventy-eight per cent of employees agreed with the statement ā€˜I have a good immediate supervisorā€™. This is an increase on 2012 (73%).

Figure 2.5 shows improvements across all immediate supervisor capabilities, including those that make up the Integrated Leadership System, such as achieving results and exemplifying personal drive and integrity which increased from 2012 to 2013. Areas that attracted the least favourable responses remained the motivation and development of people and encouragement of innovation.

Figure 2.5 Employee views of their immediate supervisor, 2012 and 2013

Source: Employee census, 2012 APS employee census, 2011 employee survey


Results from the 2012 APS employee census demonstrated that employees who strongly agreed with the statement ā€˜In my agency, the most senior leaders are sufficiently visible (for example, can be seen in action)ā€™ recorded substantially higher scores on all elements of employee engagement than employees who disagreed with the statement. Figure 2.6 shows the same effect in 2013. Visibility is not the only feature of leadership that had an effect on employee engagement. Employees were also shown to value the opportunity to interact with their leaders in a meaningful way, with similar effects on all elements of employee engagement.

Figure 2.6 Impact of senior leader visibility on employee engagement, 2012 and 2013

Source: Employee census


Figure 2.7 shows that, in 2013, 46% of employees agreed that agency leadership was of a high quality. This result was similar to previous years (2012: 48%; 2011: 47%). However, 47% of employees agreed their most senior leaders were sufficiently visible (for example, can be seen in action) compared with 45% in 2012 and 40% in 2011 showing a steady rise in perceptions of this behaviour over the past three years. A total of 42% of employees agreed that senior leaders in their agency engage with employees on how to respond to future challenges. This is also an increase on previous years (2012: 40%; 2011: 40%).

When asked about senior leadership capabilities, only 56% of employees agreed their SES maintain a focus on the strategic direction of their agency and the APS, down on the 58% that agreed with the same statement in 2012. Similarly, employee perceptions that senior leaders give their time to identify and develop talent remains persistently low and has fallen this year (2013: 28%; 2012: 30%).

Figure 2.7 Employee views of their SES leadership capabilities, 2012 and 2013

Source: Employee census


There was an improvement in satisfaction with some leadership capabilities of immediate supervisors and SES over the past year, however there were also some areas where positive perceptions declined and/or remained persistently low.

Discretionary effort

Broadly, discretionary effort can be defined as the difference in the level of effort an employee is capable of bringing to an activity or a task and the effort required in meeting the minimum standard of performance. A more complete understanding of discretionary effort is important because research has demonstrated a positive relationship between discretionary effort and a range of organisational and employee outcomes, including productivity, engagement, job performance and absenteeism.6

Discretionary effort involves the employee willingly giving effort for which there is no formal expectation of reward. In practice, this might include willingly working extra hours to get the job done or willingly helping a colleague to learn a new skill or sharing job knowledge. In the past, discretionary effort was measured in APS employee surveys through items such as ā€˜When needed, I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job doneā€™. Consistently, this item, and others like it, showed no variance in response, with around 96% of employees responding positively. Nor did responses to this item provide any insight into the way these behaviours contribute to team and organisational performance. To better understand discretionary effort in the APS, the 2013 APS employee census (employee census) included additional items to examine two aspects of discretionary behaviour: behaviours related to the performance of the task or job, and behaviours related to supporting and helping colleagues in the workplace.

Academic research has demonstrated strong relationships between organisational work climates and job attitudes. Organisational climates that are generally viewed as positive (for example, those that are fair, supportive, ethical and/or participative) have emerged as reliable predictors of positive employee attitudes. Similarly, the link between climate and positive employee behaviours like discretionary effort, and negative behaviours like the withdrawal of commitment, is also well established.7 There is also considerable evidence that the individual characteristics of leaders8 and their different leadership styles and behaviour9 relate positively to different facets of work climate. Consequently, leaders can, through their behaviour, influence the extent to which employees contribute to team and organisation productivity through the effort they apply to completing tasks and contribute to building positive relationships within the team.

Task related extra-role behaviours

Figure 2.8 shows that in the fortnight preceding the employee census around one in three employees reported they worked extra hours every day or most days to complete work tasks and just over one-quarter frequently missed meals or other breaks. These items showed moderate or strong associations with the number of hours the employee reported working in the previous fortnight.

Figure 2.8 Task related discretionary effort, 2013

Source: Employee census


Figure 2.9 shows that a positive response to these items is strongly associated with an employee's classification, with more senior employees being more likely to invest extra work hours. In particular, SES employees are much more likely to work longer hours, miss meal breaks or take work home. It may be for other classifications that the ability to take work home is not as readily available and, consequently, the lower response is a function of the nature of work at a particular classification level or in a particular position.

Figure 2.9 Task related discretionary effort by classification, 2013

Source: Employee census


Figure 2.10 shows the proportion of employees who indicated they are ā€˜always or oftenā€™ under unrealistic time demands by the frequency with which they engage in discretionary effort behaviours. The differences are quite substantial. Forty per cent of those who indicated they gave up meal breaks to complete work also agreed they ā€˜always or oftenā€™ experienced unrealistic time pressures.

Figure 2.10 Task related discretionary effort and the experience of unrealistic time pressures, 2013

Source: Employee census


The level at which more senior classifications are giving additional effort raises two questions: Is there a negative impact on productivity? Is there a negative impact on organisational capability?

Burnout at work is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by three dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism and helplessness. Research has shown that excessive job demands (for example, too much work for the available time) supports the notion that burnout is a consequence of overload. In particular, excessive workload and time pressure are strongly and consistently related to burnout, particularly the exhaustion dimension. This relationship has been found with both self-reports of experienced strain and more objective measures of demands such as number of hours worked.10

With senior leader talent management, ā€˜high-potential derailmentā€™ is also a possible outcome of excessive workload. Derailment describes high potential leaders who want to move up in the organisation and who the organisation has identified as having high potential, but who either fail to reach their potential or leave the organisation before doing so.11 In addition to burnout, some employees derail intentionally by choosing to ā€˜plateauā€™ voluntarily or by taking themselves out of contention for advancement. This is an organisational capability issue in that it represents talent lost to the organisation or potential unrealised.

While high levels of task-related discretionary effort is positively associated with features of high levels of job engagement, there is also a need to monitor whether the effort is willingly given or is a function of unrealistic expectations and/or poor job design. All leaders are responsible for managing fatigue (their own and others) to ensure good decision making, the maintenance of a skilled workforce, continued levels of high performance and sustainable organisational capability.

Team related extra-role behaviours

Figure 2.11 shows that, in the preceding fortnight, more than half of employees indicated they had shared their knowledge in the workplace ā€˜every day or most daysā€™. More than one-third had gone out of their way to express appreciation to a colleague or offer suggestion on how work is done.

Figure 2.11 Team related discretionary effort, 2013

Source: Employee census


As can be seen in Figure 2.12, employee census results show employees at more senior levels reported they performed team-related behaviours more often. These results may be a function of greater opportunity for SES employees to engage in these behaviours as part of their role as leaders. However, there is a substantial difference between SES and EL employees who also exercise leadership responsibility as part of their role in an agency.

Figure 2.12 Team related discretionary effort by classification, 2013

Source: Employee census


Interestingly, SES and trainees and graduates were more likely than other classifications to indicate they had said ā€˜good thingsā€™ about their agency in front of others in the previous fortnight. Figure 2.13 shows employees who engaged in this behaviour also showed a strong positive association across all elements of employee engagement.

Figure 2.13 Positive agency representation and employee engagement, 2013

Source: Employee census


In summary, leaders play a significant role in creating the environment in which engaged employees contribute to the productivity of the team and organisation through the effort they apply to completing tasks and building positive relationships within the team.


6 P Podsakoff, S MacKenzie, J Paine and D Bachrach, ā€˜Organisational Citizen Behaviors: A Critical Review of the Theoretical and Empirical Literature and Sugesstions for Future Researchā€™, Journal of Management, (2000), vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 513ā€“563.

7 M Kuenzi and M Schminke, ā€˜Assembling Fragments into a Lens: A Review, Critique, and Proposed Research Agenda for the Organizational Work Climate Literatureā€™, Journal of Management, (2009), vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 634ā€“717.

8 D Mayer, L Nishii, B Schneider and H Goldstein, ā€˜The Precursors and Products of Justice Climates: Group Leader Antecedents and Employee Attitudinal Consequencesā€™, Personnel Psychology, (2007), vol. 60, pp. 929ā€“963.

9 BM Bass, BJ Avolio, DI Jung and Y Berson, ā€˜Predicting Unit Performance by Assessing Transformational and Transactional Leadershipā€™, Journal of Applied Psychology, (2003), vol. 88, no. 2, pp. 207ā€“218; D Zohar and G Luria, ā€˜Climate as a Social-Cognitive Construction of Supervisory Safety Practices: Scripts as Proxy of Behavior Patternsā€™, Journal of Applied Psychology, (2004), vol. 89, no. 2, pp. 322ā€“333.

10 C Maslach, WB Schaufeli and M Leiter, ā€˜Job Burnoutā€™, Annual Review of Psychology, (2001), vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 397ā€“422.

11 A Furnham, The Elephant in the Boardroom: The Causes of Leadership Derailment, Palgrave Macmillan, (2010), p. 283.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018