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Bosses who help employees with emotional problems expect gratitude that typically never arrives, study finds

May 16, 2013

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, 212-233-6170,

Noticing that a subordinate has lately seemed distracted and troubled, a supervisor considers offering to help. Would it be wise to do so, and, if so, how should the employee respond?

New research finds that employees tend to seek help with personal and job worries from supervisors rather than from co-workers. But the research also uncovers a special problem of such relationships that until now has gone unrecognized -- namely, that subordinates typically view supervisors' help as part of their managerial responsibilities, while supervisors see them as good deeds that go well beyond their job duties.

The study in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal finds that "managers and subordinates disagreed as to whether managerial efforts to ameliorate employees' negative emotions represented discretionary good citizenship behavior or expected managerial role enactment. This incongruence extended to the expectation of reciprocity, with subordinates seeing little or no obligation to reciprocate for emotion help received, whereas managers expected reciprocation in the form of subordinate commitment and personal loyalty."

The difference is summed up vividly by the CEO of the company that was studied in the new research: "When you do something for someone, you always kind of expect to be reciprocated. If we go to the pub and I buy you a drink, it will sort of be expected that the next time around, you buy me one. It is in every element of our culture -- except in the workplace. They [direct reports] don't see that."

And such attitudes can be quite painful, the study makes clear, citing the case of one manager who devoted a lot of time to helping a subordinate deal with emotional troubles only to have her leave for another company just when she seemed to be turning the corner. When the manager showed disappointment at the departure news, the subordinate expressed surprise, having taken for granted that such help was part of a supervisor's job.

Comments Ginka Toegel of the IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, who carried out the study with her IMD colleague Anand Narasimhan and Martin Kilduff of University College London, "Most managers don't express disappointment straight out, as this supervisor did, but their expectations are quite real nevertheless. They feel that helping with emotional problems is above and beyond their job responsibilities and expect employees to return the favor through enhanced recognition, loyalty, and commitment. In short, no second thoughts if there's a deadline to meet and the employee is asked to stay late."It is such expectations, the professors found to their surprise (having expected more altruism), that largely explain why managers commonly "overcome the general human tendency of avoiding people perceived to be suffering from negative emotions." Some supervisors expected practical gains to ensue from their involvement, because, as one put it, "the emotional side does affect the money, the sales, and the profits." Others offered help from more social motives, like the female middle manager who described herself as "being a little bit nosy" and simply wanting to know "what is going on and to get involved."

But whether the motivation was practical or social, the study reveals, managers generally "nurtured the calculative expectation that they would gain something back," like the middle manager who not only was warmed by the recognition his efforts engender from subordinates but expected that "they have probably said something to my boss...that I helped them."

The paper's findings emerge from an in-depth study of a highly successful recruiting agency specializing in providing managerial staff for retail outlets. Data were collected through e-mail questionnaires sent to all 67 employees, consisting of lower-level personnel, middle managers, and top managers, and through interviews averaging about an hour with 30 employees at all three levels. Questionnaires asked participants to peruse an alphabetical roster of employees and indicate those who helped them deal with personal problems or negative emotions. Interviewers asked participants to describe situations in which a colleague provided assistance with emotional problems, including who provided the help and what it consisted of, and, in addition, elicited interviewees' opinions on why the help was provided and whether or not it was part of the helper's job.

Seventy-five percent of lower-level employees and 71% of middle managers reported receiving emotion help from higher-ups, with the initial approach coming about equally from supervisors and subordinates. About half the situations that were reported involved personal issues, such as illness and death of a family member or family disputes, with the remainder related to issues at work, such as meeting deadlines and monthly targets, changes in work roles, and difficulties with direct reports. The nature of the help consisted of simply listening, in 27% of the cases; validating through confidence-boosting empathy (36% of the cases); reframing issues through broadening an employee's perspective (18%); transforming negative emotions to positive ones through spirited encouragement or humor (9%); and just plain advising (10%).

Whether they simply provided a sympathetic ear or did more, managers generally expressed disappointment with the typical absence of gratitude for their efforts, a lack obviated by the fact that, in the words of the study, "none of the subordinates interviewed mentioned owing commitment, loyalty, and extra productivity that some managers had expected of them."

What lessons should emerge from this discrepancy? "For supervisors, one lesson is to avoid unrealistic expectations," comments Prof. Toegel. "In an era when so much of economic life is built on services, it is not surprising that subordinates would consider it part of their boss' job to maintain a healthy emotional climate geared to the contentment of clients. The fact is that supervisors do benefit from a happy team in terms of productivity and results, as most of our interviewees were aware. Emotional rewards beyond that would be nice, but their absence should not be an occasion for bitterness or hand-wringing.

"As for subordinates," the professor continues, "hopefully, our findings will alert people to the fact that help from a supervisor comes with a price in terms of expectations for gratitude and personal loyalty. If employees are not comfortable with that, they should think twice about going to their supervisor for help or even accepting an offer for help."

In conclusion the professor adds: "Ideally, the best way to deal with emotional issues in the workplace is through regular team discussions, which avoid the problem of discrepant expectations that emerged so clearly in this study. The great majority of teams, unfortunately, do not venture into issues of team dynamics or emotional relationships, so employees turn to the nearest mother or father figure at hand, namely their supervisors. Hopefully, our findings will result in increased awareness all-around of what that step entails."

The study, "Emotion Helping by Managers: An Emergent Understanding of Discrepant Role Expectations and Outcomes," is in the April issue of the The Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with almost 19,000 members in 110 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

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