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
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
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.