Nice Managers Finish Last, Study Finds

Bad news for bosses who take an interest in their employees’ emotional well-being: their employees won’t work any harder as a show of gratitude for their support

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According to a new study from the IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, the problem stems in mixed perceptions: managers tend to view giving their employees emotional support as going above and beyond their job descriptions. Thus, many managers expect their employees to give something back in return for doing so: working a little harder than usual to meet a deadline, perhaps.

Employees, however, think it’s a part of managers’ normal duties to care about their emotional troubles, both professional and personal. After all, happier employees mean a more productive team, and that means better results for managers. Thus, they don’t feel any drive to work harder for an emotionally supportive manager.

“Managers and employees alike appreciate that controlling negative emotions can be important within an organization,” said Professor Ginka Toegel, a co-author of the study. “But it seems there’s a marked difference in how the two parties believe this sort of support should be perceived and how they think employees should respond to it.”

The problem can take an ugly turn when caring managers are let down by employees’ unwillingness to work harder or longer as a show of gratitude for their support, sometimes viewing it as a personal slight. In one case cited in the study, a manager helped an employee through an emotionally difficult time, only for the employee to leave the company after she was feeling better about her situation. The manager told the employee he felt “let down,” while the employee said she didn’t consider how her leaving might affect the manager.

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The researchers’ findings come after interviewing dozens of workers at a recruiting agency for managers in the service sector. With those data, researchers were able to plot a social map of the office’s emotional-support structure, clearly showing who went to whom for professional and personal emotional help. Approximately 75% of low- and middle-level workers acknowledged getting emotional support from those above them in the office hierarchy, but not a single employee said they felt any debt toward their managers for their kindness.

Should managers give up on helping their employees with emotional problems? Hardly — there’s still plenty of evidence showing a well-adjusted team performs better in the long run. It’s simply a matter of managing expectations: managers shouldn’t expect an immediate quid pro quo for helping out a member of their team.

“Based on our findings, maybe the lesson for all concerned is to avoid unrealistic expectations — especially in an era when so much of economic life is built on services,” said IMD professor Anand Narasimhan. “The fact is that managers do benefit from a happy team in terms of productivity and results, even without any additional displays of loyalty and commitment. Some manifestation of gratitude beyond that would be very nice, of course, but there’s no reason for bitterness or hand wringing if it doesn’t happen to materialize.”

IMD’s study, conducted in partnership with University College London, was published in the April issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

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I disagree with a couple of assumptions in this article. First, if you care about your employees the article infers you're a "nice manager" and you'll finish last. You're drawing a correlation between caring about your team  and being "too nice". Wrong assumption. Basic and fundamental to team success is a manager who cares deeply about each person on their team. 

Secondly, "being too nice" has nothing to do with caring. You infer managers overstep their boundaries of professional/personal in caring about their people - and by being too nice might play favorites or overlook work related expectations.

Research going all the way back to Maslow shows that employees want recognition and support from their boss. They need a pat on the back for doing a great job, and deserve it. They need to know their boss is empathic and cares about their success and well-being. The extensive work done by Gallup on employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention, shows managers who care about their people get better results.

Finally, it doesn't appear to be age related - you can't claim dramatic differences between recent graduates and baby boomers. I can take my own high school girls basketball team that I've been coaching for almost a decade and see the same things: performance goes up when team members know their boss (coach) has their back, and is there to support them. It goes without saying that bosses/managers have to set limits or boundries on professional support vs. personal support.

Working in a sterile, 100 percent task driven environment where it's just about completing the tasks is what drives good people to look for greener pastures.

The problem is that most managers have never been adequately trained in the emotional connection side of working with team members. many times they see their role as nothing more than ensuring completion of the task. They see personal feelings, concerns, and emotional states as not having a place in the work environment. This is just plain unrealistic. As a result, many employees are disgusted, turned-off, and disappointed in the people they work for. One of the major reasons candidates leave companies is because of their boss.

The study appears flawed and does not reflect real world work environments.

Barry Deutsch


IMPACT Hiring Solutions


If you are kind for the return - what's the point? As a manager, I care and in return - they care. It's a win win.


I would say that if "emotional support" comes with strings attached then it becomes transactional, not personal and not support. A personal connection with your boss can definitely influence changing or not changing jobs, but finding emotional support would not really be a career objective, and anyone who thinks their boss is like a friend is clearly deluded.


This is no surprise. Long gone are the days when employees have any vestiges of loyalty to an employer. And who can blame them? After the last 35 years with the way US companies have sent jobs overseas, downsized & made employees work harder/longer hours, etc., etc. I have been in middle mgt. for 20 years & have seen it all. By the way, once had a casual conversation with a very senior IT guy at a company I was with about bringing foreign workers in for IT jobs as supposedly the US didn't have workers with the right skills/education, he said it was really all about lower labor costs. LOL! Its all BS & its bad for you......