IT USED to be that an employee having problems at home would keep schtum about it in front of his boss. Moaning about your home life, claimed Jack Welch, the fiery ex-chief of GE, was a “phenomenon of below-average performers”. A manager’s job was to screw more work out of you, not to act as a shoulder to cry on. Where sympathy was needed, workers would prefer to go moping to their trade union than their boss.
Times have changed. A few management types still occasionally debate whether, as per Machiavelli’s dictum, it is better to be feared than loved. But by and large the argument has been won by those bosses who err on the side of tea and sympathy.
There are several reasons why this should be. Firstly, it cannot be completely discounted that some managers are simply decent human beings. More cynically, companies might also be afraid of employment lawsuits if they ignore employees’ personal troubles when assessing their work. But, most importantly, there is a general belief that a happy, open workforce, which feels comfortable enough to discuss its problems, is a more productive one.
Bosses have less altruistic reasons too. According to a paper published in July’s Academy of Management Journal, past research has demonstrated that when bosses offer emotional support to employees, they believe it to be part of an unspoken “exchange arrangement”. Workers, they believe, not only return bosses’ kindness by working harder for the firm, they also become more loyal to them personally.
Yet, according to Ginka Toegel, a professor at IMD business school in Switzerland and one of the authors of the paper, as sympathetic bosses become the norm, so they have also become taken for granted.
The paper looked at the relationship between 21 managers and their 46 subordinates at an unnamed recruitment firm, using interviews and questionnaires. Such a small sample at a single company is clearly not enough to extrapolate into a broad trend (although, regrettably, Ms Toegel and her team do just that), but it is an interesting jumping off point for a discussion. The researchers found that most employees in the firm viewed kindness simply as part of their managers’ duties. Staff expected to be able to call on them freely for support for their emotional problems, yet none said they felt any personal debt to their superior when they received help.
Managers, on the other hand, regarded emotional support as being above and beyond their responsibilities. Some said that they spent considerable time sorting out their staff’s private lives. While most were happy to help, they expected something in return.
This mismatch meant that, when gratitude did not materialise, the mood in the office easily switched from one of supportiveness to bitterness. Ms Toegel suggests that the lesson is that both sides should avoid unrealistic expectations. Put another way, if you are a boss, it is nice to be nice, but there is no point in going out of your way.
Original article in: Economist