Leaning in and out for fulfilling work and conditions

By Elisabeth Goodman, 16th March 2023

There are two well-established models that regularly stimulate powerful reflections in my work with managers and leaders. How well they adopt these models can have important consequences for how fulfilled their direct reports will feel in their work.

A series of articles in the January-February 2023 issue of Harvard Business Review are irresistible to comment on in this context!

Two well-established models for creating fulfilling work and conditions

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: a model for understanding the different ways in which people are motivated, and how this can change in terms of how well their needs are met.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs

2. Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model: a tool to help gauge what leadership style to adopt depending on an individual’s stage of development in relation to their role in general, and to specific tasks.

The January – February issue of Harvard Business Review carries three articles that relate very nicely to these two models, and to ways in which managers and leaders can lean in and out of different ways of working. This blog explores what each article brings in turn.

Offer employees a holistic value proposition

Mark Mortensen and Amy Edmondson1 cite a number of studies, including their own, that highlight the importance of a blend of four factors to both attract and retain people at work. Three of these factors sit within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

  • What the authors call “material offerings” – things related to pay and working conditions: the first of Maslow’s levels
  • Connection and community – analogous to the third level, but also psychological safety in the second level
  • Growth and development – analogous to esteem and self-actualisation

The fourth factor is one that Daniel Pink2 and others emphasise: having a sense of meaning and purpose in our work.

What’s interesting in Mortensen and Edmondson’s article is how they stress the importance of being very deliberate in combining all four of these factors for recruitment and retention. Some of them will impact individuals; some will have more collective impact. Some will have a shorter term impact. Others will have a longer term impact.

The authors put the four factors into a visual to show their holistic impact.

To what extent do you as a manager or leader deliberately lean in and create a blend of all four of these factors for recruitment and retention of employees?

Engage in dialogue to make both a direct report’s and a manager’s work more fulfilling

I found Roger Martin’s3 take on the steps that both managers and direct reports can take to make each other’s work more fulfilling refreshingly original.

As Martin pointed out, people need work that is within their capability and has the right amount of challenge to keep them motivated. If their work does not meet those criteria, then they may well choose what aspects of it they do to make it so.

He suggests that managers have “chartering conversations” with their direct reports in order to better assess the match between capability and the level of challenge involved for any one task. This is leaning in to understand and adjust expectations accordingly. It’s also an opportunity to understand which of the situational leadership styles will be most appropriate.

The real novelty in the article is the suggestion that employees also have more deliberate conversations with their managers, so that the managers feel engaged and valued. An employee can do that by keeping their manager informed about what they are doing, the approach they are taking, the options they are considering, and asking for input to validate or enhance the quality of their work.

Lean in and out in different ways depending on the situation and task at hand

David Noble and Carol Kauffman’s article4 was the one that inspired my use of the “lean in” and “lean out” terminology for this blog. The authors coach and advise senior leaders, and have evolved their “four stances” approach from the work of psychologists Charles “Rick” Snyder and Shane J. Lopez.

Noble and Kauffman’s “four stances” relate to how leaders can adapt their interpersonal style, when working with a team, and based on what the situation requires.

Their approach seems both similar to and a little different to the four situational leadership styles, which are generally positioned for working with individuals:

Lean in

In this stance, the manager is working closely with their team because they don’t have the knowledge and resources that they need. The manager is also injecting emotional energy.

This equates to a blend of Hersey and Blanchard’s S1 and S2 leadership styles.

In S1 – Directing, Hersey and Blanchard’s model suggest that individuals have all the energy that they need, so that emotional support is not necessary. S2 – Coaching is the level that brings in more of that emotional support.

[ A side note. I’ve always found Hersey and Blanchard’s use of the term “coaching” here at odds with my own understanding of the term. In coaching as I know it, we provide emotional support and encouragement, but don’t provide direction or information.]

Lean back

Noble and Kauffman’s definition of “lean back” is to focus on providing information (as in S1), and asking questions to help with their team’s thinking (a bit of S2). They suggest that this is needed if emotions are running high, and data will help to ground people’s thinking.

Lean with

This feels like a good match with Hersey and Blanchard’s third leadership style (S3 – Supporting). It’s one where people have all the information and capability that they need, but need some emotional support due to loss of confidence or generally benefitting from encouragement.

Don’t lean

Noble and Kauffman encourage leaders and managers to be contemplative and still in this stance: to give their team space to think or generally calm down. This equates beautifully with Hersey and Blanchard’s fourth leadership style (S4 – Delegating): low direction, low support. This is when the team or the individual have all the resources that they need; the manager just needs to get out of their way so that they can deliver what they need to do.


Noble and Kauffman’s advice is that leaders and managers identify and understand their default stance, and then develop skills to flex between the other three. The same is true for Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model.

The same can also be said for how we motivate people: we are each motivated by different things, as Maslow’s model illustrates. It can be easy to default to approaches that would work for us, but might not be the best fit for others. Mortensen and Edmondson recommend that we understand and blend a range of factors in a more holistic approach.

“Chartering” or indeed any conversation between individuals, teams, and their managers and leaders, will help to create greater understanding of what people need in terms of tasks, capabilities, information and mutual support.

What insights are you taking away from this blog?


  1. Mortensen, M & Edmondson, A.C. (2023, Jan-Feb). Rethink your employee value proposition. Offer your people more than just flexibility. Harvard Business Review, pp.45-49
  2. Pink, D. (2011) Drive. The surprising truth about what motivates us. Canongate Books
  3. Martin, R.L. (2023, Jan-Feb). Designing jobs right. Make them challenging but don’t overdo it. Harvard Business Review, pp.51-53
  4. Noble, D. & Kauffman, C. (2023, Jan-Feb). The power of options. Always give yourself four ways to win. Harvard Business Review, pp.108-115

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