Managers providing emotional support to others in the workplace was the subject of a study reported in 2013 in the Academy of Management Journal. Researchers at the International Institute for Management Development, Lausanne, Switzerland, and University College London studied a firm of over 60 people. The firm operated in an open floor plan where others were easily observed. Ginka Toegel and her colleagues gathered data by e-mail questionnaire and then interviewed 30 employees.
Here’s what they found. Some managers offered support by listening or perhaps giving advice. These managers supported but did not interact extensively. Other managers did -- not only listening and advising, but helping the employee reframe, rethink, see the issue from a different perspective, sometimes helping to formulate a positive perspective.
Why did the managers provide support? For some it was instrumental, something that needs to be done to maintain workplace productivity and prevent decreased morale. For others it was more from a sense of who they were, perhaps those who viewed themselves more as compassionate leaders.
Regardless of motivation, managers saw this as outside their role as a manager. Consequently they usually thought their emotional support would be reciprocated through more workplace commitment or acknowledgement. On the other hand, the employee being helped saw it as just part of the manager’s role, what managers are expected to do.
Managers who helped and employees who were helped had very different expectations. Employees appreciated the help and saw managers who gave it as better leaders. But managers who gave help and did not receive anything in return were often disappointed.
My take-away: The degree to which a manager provides emotional support probably depends on the relationship with the employee, the personality of the manager, and the culture of the organization. I have known leaders whose compassionate behaviors were intended to be instrumental. I have known other leaders for whom compassion was just in their DNA. And then there are leaders who have no clue how to support others emotionally in the workplace. What is your style? Your boss’s style? Do your antennae pick up when a co-worker needs a friend?
Toegel, G., Kilduff, M., & Anand, N. (2013). Emotion helping by managers: An emergent understanding of discrepant role expectations and outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 56 (2), 334-357.
Image taken in Skagway Pass. © John Ballard, 2013. All rights reserved.