ORG Blog

A Tale of Two Leaders: How Interest-Based Leadership Affects Employee Engagement

Part 1 of 3 in an Interest-Based Leadership series

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Every day, in every organization, people with different jobs, priorities, personalities and objectives try to find ways to work in concert.  The consequences of the choice leaders make in their approach to solving problems, dealing with differences, and resolving challenges are powerful and far-reaching as demonstrated in the examples below.   These stories illustrate the importance of mutually acceptable outcomes and improved relationships – outcomes of an interest-based leadership approach.   Interest-based leadership is an approach to problem solving that considers the interests and concerns of all parties who are involved or might be impacted by the situation.

A manufacturer of automotive parts was forced to confront the fact that it could not produce its product at prices competitive with those from overseas competition.  While employees and supervisors had been giving it their best, upper management decided to reduce costs through a reduction of workforce.  

The executive sent to communicate the decision called the entire management team together to deliver the news.  The leader delivered the following message:

Times are tough.  We’ve got to align our costs with oversees competition by reducing head count.  We need to advise the union of the number of lay-offs and the date they will be effective.  The management team leapt into action and executed the decision quickly. 

Across town, a federal agency was confronted with escalating facility maintenance costs causing management to consider closures.  They took a very different approach. The executive team was advised of the situation and they called together management and union leaders. The leaders made a plan beginning with bringing stakeholders together to address this challenge.  Management and labor worked together to generate a list of creative options to reduce costs while considering the interests of both employees and leaders.  This approach invoked the passion and dedication that all employees had for the service they delivered.

These stories illustrate the dramatic difference between the mind-set the leaders had despite similar situations.  The first leader drove the work force toward antagonism and hostility, while the second inspired win-win solutions in the face of difficulty.

This contrast points to a difference in skill more than intent.  Leaders generally want to resolve issues to the advantage of all concerned, but in some cases, they simply have not learned a set of skills or behaviors which will lead to these outcomes.

Tips to help leaders improve employee engagement with an interest-based approach:

  • Watch for opportunities that might benefit from a different approach such as:
    • An instance when one group clearly “wins” or “loses”
    • An issue that is traditionally avoided entirely
    • A time when one party accommodates another’s position without really agreeing
    • A situation where commands are issued and compliance is expected.
  • Practice active listening to recognize interests of others.  Active listening involves:
    • Listening beyond the words
    • Watching and thinking about body language and tone of voice
    • Asking clarifying questions with the intent to understand.
  • Actively seek out different perspectives, experiences, opinions, and viewpoints– and assure that these become part of the dialogue.


What opportunities have you seen for an interest-based approach?  Share your thoughts on A Tale of Two Leaders with us!

Guest Blogger Vicki Kelsey is President, VKAL, Inc.  She can be reached at  This blog series is based on previously published content in The OD Practitioner by Nick Bizony, President, The Lakeland Group. 



Topics: Collaboration Conflict Resolution Labor Management Leadership Sustainable Change