To Improve Employee Engagement, Focus on Building Bonds of Trust, Not External Incentives

January 24, 2016
Todd Hall
Employee Engagement

A few years ago I worked on a project with a division that had a new manager who I’ll call Thomas. After some time had passed and I had more conversations with people on the team, it became clear that no one on the team felt an emotional bond to Thomas. As I observed him and interacted with him throughout the project, I saw that he was distant and aloof. He made a lot of changes right away without talking to people who’d been there for years. He interrupted people, and didn’t really listen. No one felt a personal connection to him. It was like you couldn’t make contact with the real Thomas. When you don’t feel some sense of connection to a person, you can’t trust him or her. As a result, morale and engagement suffered and it wasn’t too long before Thomas was let go. Maybe you’ve experienced this.

When there are no bonds of trust at work, our collective energy for compassion, creativity, and productivity is drained.

Hopefully you have also had the opposite experience: feeling genuinely connected to and cared for by a supervisor and the people with whom you work. When you feel this, you enjoy work more, and you’re motivated to bring your A game.

Emotional bonds at work matter. They impact employees’ overall well being, engagement and the bottom line. Emotional bonds are ultimately what make our work meaningful. We know this from our experience and research is confirming the importance of leaders creating bonds of trust.

Emotional Bonds are Intrinsically Motivating 

A recent study by Gallup found that employees’ perceptions of work conditions, including feeling cared for by one’s supervisor and people at work, correlated with overall job satisfaction, commitment and engagement [1]. In a more recent longitudinal study, they found that perceptions of work conditions at Time 1 predicted employee retention and customer loyalty at Time 2, and financial performance at Time 3 [2]. Evidence for the reverse causal direction was much weaker. So, when people feel their immediate supervisors, and others, care about them, it’s linked to higher levels of engagement and retention. In addition, the more people feel emotionally connected to their job, the better the bottom line. It promotes improved financial performance.

Feeling cared for by a supervisor is the result of an emotional bond of trust. Given the impact these bonds have on performance, building them should be a high priority for leaders. Emotional bonds motivate employees to perform at a higher level and stay with the organization. We are pre-wired to attach and create emotional bonds with others. We are also pre-wired to want to please authority figures, such as leaders, to whom we have some attachment. So, emotional bonds to our leaders promote one form of intrinsic motivation to do our work well. We want to please leaders to whom we feel an emotional connection. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. I played tennis in high school for a coach I admired. He cared about us as individuals, and he put 100% into his coaching. In turn, I was motivated to give 100% on the court.

In a related vein, recent research suggests that instrumental motives, such as external incentives, don’t provide an added boost to performance beyond internal motives. For example, one study followed 10,000 West Point cadets over a decade and found that instrumental motives weakened the positive association between internal motives (those inherent in military service) and positive outcomes (e..g, becoming commissioned officers, extending service beyond the initial obligation, and being selected for early career promotions) [3].

Although external incentives can be helpful in certain ways (e.g., they predict quantity of performance more than quality [4]), we spend too much energy trying to motivate employees with them and not enough energy motivating people through emotional bonds—something for which we are pre-wired.

Creating Emotional Bonds 

So, what exactly is an emotional bond, and how can you create it at work?

In their book, Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base Leadership [5], George Kohlrieser, Suan Goldsworthy and Duncan Coombe describe bonding as the “heart” of leadership. They define bonding or connecting as: “forming an attachment that creates more physical, emotional, intellectual and/or spiritual energy than the person or people involved could generate independently” (p. 56). When you’ve formed an emotional bond with someone, there is a sense of security, trust, emotional accessibility, and reliability.

It’s noteworthy here that emotional connections create energy. In our increasingly fast-paced world, we’re all struggling to produce the energy we need to find meaning in our work and live a fulfilling life. In his new book, Are You Fully Charged, Tom Rath reveals three keys to our well-being: meaning, interactions, and energy. Emotional bonds involve interactions that are inherently meaningful and produce energy that enlarges our capacity to connect to and love others.

Here are 4 practices to help you create bonds of trust with your employees, co-workers, friends and family.

1. Foster a connection mindset. 

There’s a myth out there that emotional bonds aren’t relevant to leadership and the workplace. This mindset is beginning to change. Southwest Airlines is an example of a company that has busted this myth and fostered a connection mindset. They are known for putting their people first and treating passengers like family. For example, they maintain a 10-to-1 frontline-employee-to-supervisor ratio, which encourages supervisors to build emotional bonds with their people. They have a culture services department with 30+ full-time employees embedded within different departments [6]. That’s a real financial commitment that reflects a deeply held value – a culture and mindset of connection.

We have a long way to go in our organizations, but you can make a difference in your own sphere of influence. In our hyper-competitive culture, it’s critical that you foster an awareness of the importance of building emotional bonds every single day. Just being mindful of opportunities to strengthen emotional bonds each day is a huge head start.

Reflect: How can you strengthen an emotional bond with someone today? How can you help your team foster a connection mindset?

2. Remove barriers to bonding. 

Pay attention to when you block the bonding process and why. Kohlrieser and colleagues note that some leaders block the bonding process “for fear of being rejected, being used, or being seen as 'too soft'” (p. 57). Too many work cultures unfortunately promote this fear of being too soft, but most often there are deeper reasons for blocking the bonding process. One leader I worked with – I’ll call him Nick – struggled to build emotional bonds with his colleagues because he feared rejection. He experienced a lot of rejection in childhood from his alcoholic mother and distant father, so he expected others to push him away. Because of this gut-level expectation Nick didn’t let others at work get too close. Not only that, he was highly critical of others because his feelings of rejection in the past permeated his experience in the present. This hindered his team from functioning in a cohesive manner.

Some people fear rejection and the pain of grieving the inevitable losses that come from bonding. If this describes you, there are always understandable emotional reasons, but it’s still counter-productive to your health and well-being and to the performance of your team. Removing barriers is, of course, a process and not a one-shot deal. The key is to enter into the process and to keep moving forward. The first step is to identify and label the underlying emotional pain from which you’re protecting yourself. From there, you need to process this with people who are safe.

Reflect: When have you withheld from bonding with others? What were the circumstances and why do you think you did this?

3. Be emotionally available. 

This means that you make yourself available to process challenges with your people. Sometimes these challenges will focus directly on work tasks, and other times they’ll focus on emotional issues that are impacting work. Whatever the type of challenge, be available for your people to process them. This doesn’t mean you don’t hold people accountable, but it does mean you listen and provide guidance and support. In fact, this is the best approach to holding people accountable. It lets your people know that you expect a certain level of performance because you care about them personally and about the organization. This will win their loyalty.

Reflect: What is one thing you can do to be more emotionally available to your employees and/or co-workers?

4. Foster empathy and compassion. 

Creating a bond of trust starts with empathy and compassion. Empathy is feeling with others. You have to put yourself in another’s shoes emotionally. Compassion has been described as “empathy-in-action.” Feeling with another is helpful, but take the next step and put that empathy into action. All emotions have “action tendencies” built into them—a pull to act in a certain way. If you feel someone’s pain with them, the action tendency is to do something to relieve their pain. Sometimes that’s a practical action, sometimes it’s emotional comfort, and sometimes it’s both. When you feel empathy and show compassion for others, it builds trust.

Reflect: What barriers do you experience to empathizing with others and showing compassion? How can you show compassion to your employees and/or co-workers in tangible ways?

I hope these tips help you build stronger emotional bonds that help you and your team thrive.


[1]. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., Killham, E.A., & Agrawal, S. (2009). Q12 meta-analysis: The relationship between engagement at work and organizational outcomes (Technical paper). Omaha, NE: Gallup.

[2]. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., Asplund, J.W., Killham, E.A., & Agrawa, S. (2010). Causal Impact of Employee Work Perceptions on the Bottom Line of Organizations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4) 378–389.

[3]. Wrzesniewski, A., Schwartz, B., Xiangyu, C., Kane, M., Omar, A., & Kolditz, T. (2014). Mutliple types of motives don’t multiply the motivation of West Point Cadets. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, Vol 111 (30). 10990-10995.

[4]. Cerasoli, C.P., Nicklin, J.M. & Ford, M.T. (2014). Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 140(4), 9890-1008.

[5]. Kohlrieser, G., Goldsworthy, S., & Coombe, D. (2015). Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base Leadership. San Fransicso: Jossey-Bass.

[6]. Stallard, M.L., Pankau, J., & Stallard, K. (2015).  Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

More From Dr. Todd Hall

5 Mindset Shifts to Promote Connection

Leadership Lessons From Bear Grylls: 3 Ways to be a Secure Base

3 Ways to Promote Psychological Safety in Your Team

Todd Hall, Ph.D. is Chief Scientist and cofounder of Connection Culture Group. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall's work at and follow him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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