What kind of leader are you? And how to become (more) engaged?

What defines an engaging (or disengaging) leader? What is the relationship between engaging leadership and employee work engagement? How to become an engaging leader? In the interactive session ‘Sustainable Engaging Leadership and Employee Management’ Assistant Professor Dr. Irina Nikolova provided students with the theoretical insights of engaging (vs. disengaging) leadership. She also held up a mirror to make students aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their own leadership behaviour. The session is part of the MaastrichtMBA educational week ‘Understanding the business’.

It’s an understatement to say that we live in a turbulent world. To be able to cope with rapidly changing business contexts, organisations desperately need highly motivated employees and leaders that engage and encourage those employees. This requires for a deeper understanding of what makes individuals and teams tick. More specifically what do employees need from their leaders to perform in a demanding business environment?

About Irina Nikolova

In an energetic session Irina Nikolova explained the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, engaging and disengaging leadership and employee engagement. Dr. Irina Nikolova holds an PhD in Psychology and is Assistant Professor in Organisational Behaviour & HRM at the Department of Organisation, Strategy and Entrepreneurship at Maastricht School of Business and Economics. She worked at several universities across Europe including a post-doc at KU Leuven Belgium. Prior to joining SBE in 2022 she worked as a Professor at BI Norwegian Business School in Norway. Nikolova’s research focuses on leadership, organisational change including digitalised workplaces and employee adaptation, organisation climate and smart cities. Her research has been published in several various scientific journals.

Three psychological needs

Irina Nikolova states that, according to the Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan) engaging leaders have to fulfil three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. “In other words, employees need to feel a sense of ownership and freedom, a sense of mastery and the opportunity to develop new skills. And they need to feel connected to others. Furthermore, a leader should take into consideration that employees want their work to be meaningful. Employees who have these needs fulfilled feel intrinsically motivated, perform better and have a sense of well-being. If, on the other hand, leaders actively frustrate these needs, you can speak of disengaging leadership. Emanuele Negri (32), Head of Maintenance & Engineering of Grünenthal GmbH in Aachen (Germany): “One of the key take-aways of this session is that leadership can strongly – both negatively and positively – influence employees’ motivation and engagement. The SDT plus the concept of engaging leadership are fundamental elements in achieving employee engagement, creativity and high performance.”


A compelling session

Rhoda Lane-O’Kelly (59) has been leading an international career based out of Paris for the last 30 years. She currently is Director of Europe, Middle East and Africa for an organisation that focuses on a collaborative, positive change agenda between retailers and manufacturers in the consumer goods industry globally. “I thought the session was compelling because we all work in a people-based environment. Learning to understand and identify engaging versus disengaging leadership practices, first in a theoretical fashion, helps us to apply the right behaviours in an intentional way, helping us to become better leaders. The interactive nature of the sessions means that you learn through your own reflections on these theories, but also from class members sharing their experiences and insights. Life stories bring the theory to life and help you imagine how to apply them in the work environment.”

Who are you as a leader?

After sharing theoretical insights, Irina presented the 5-step approach to become self-aware of your leadership behaviors. She then challenged students to evaluate not only their leaders but also themselves, based on the self-determination theory principles. Rhoda: “We were provided with a checklist. This hand-out and its time-based approach helped me to think in a critical way and promote action on my part on how I can be a more engaging and motivating leader, every day. I also heightened self-awareness around any disengaging tendencies. In addition, it reminded me about how I might convince my own leader to help with my needs in order to be a better leader for our organisation.” Emanuele adds: “The checklist helped me to reflect on my strong and weak points as a leader and will help me in the future to follow-up and continuously improve.”

Rhoda concludes: “It is a privilege to reflect on the human project and improve ourselves as servant leaders, impacting those we influence positively. I also enjoyed meeting our Professor, Irina Nikolova, and hearing about her international academic experiences. The joy of live, in-person classes!”



This article displays the student insights and experiences of our On-Campus MBA Understanding the Business module. Our On-Campus track has an on campus learning format and is part of the executive modular part-time MaastrichtMBA programme. The programme has a Triple Crown accreditation and is aimed for professionals with at least 5 years of working experience.

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