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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