Be Fit: A Message You Can’t Ignore

By Stephen Gilliland

I was visiting the corporate headquarters of an international transportation Be Fit 1company in Dubai and was greeted by a barrage of signs announcing the “Be Fit” program.  In front of the elevators, you actually had to reach around it to press the button, was a big Be Fit banner.  Right above the elevator button was a sign recommending use of the stairs.  In the stairway (yes, I took the stairs!), there were signs every 6 to 8 feet showing overly expanded bellies and factoids on the health benefits of climbing stairs, pictures of fit people climbing the stairs with smiles, and also pictures of their own company executives using the stairs.  When I met with my contact, she was wearing a polo with their Be Fit logo on the front.   You simply could not escape the message that fitness matters.

If this company was in the USA, you might think they were trying desperately to control healthcare or workers compensation costs.  But this was Dubai and the objective was more about doing the right thing, than generating an immediate financial benefit.  This company takes a long-term perspective with employees.  Loyalty is high and turnover is low.  When they introduce automation (and they are an industry leader in this) it is not to eliminate jobs and reduce labor costs, but rather to improve efficiency and performance.  They assure their employees that through efficiency and performance, the company will expand and prosper.  Automation will create more jobs not less.Be Fit 2

You see, despite the automation this company is about the people.  The CEO continually reminds everyone that a company is only as good as the people, that teamwork is a greater key to success than technology, and that the health and safety of employees is paramount.  The long-term perspective is that physically healthy employees are going to create a better, more sustainable company.

But was it overkill?  All these signs “defacing” the corporate headquarters of an industry leading company with 30,000 employees spread across six continents?  I don’t think so.  It certainly was extreme.  But it also sent a message that was impossible to ignore. Employees owned the message and customers got the message.  Within minutes of walking into this company I knew it was different – that it was special.  The Be Fit campaign was Be Fit 3producing a culture change by making fitness something everyone thought about – employees, suppliers, customers, consultants.  Their culture change campaign is having ripple effects that extend beyond the walls of the company.

As I was leaving after my meeting, the receptionist for the executive suite on the 6th floor pointed me toward the elevators.  With barely a pause, she added that if I preferred, the stairs were at the end of the hallway.  I gladly took the stairs so I could look at more of their creative fitness posters!


Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education


Why is it so hard?

By Stephen Gilliland


Rubik’s Cube Courtesy of Shutterstock

In an executive education program I recently led, an executive welcomed people and asked for a show of hands: “How many people know what it takes to be healthy… to eat well and exercise properly?”  Most hands went up.  Then he asked how many people actually do this on a regularly basis?  Only one or two hands went up.  His point was that most of us knows what it takes to be healthy, but far fewer of us do this on a regular basis.  With an abundance of low-cost, tasty junk food and sedentary jobs, most Americans find it hard to maintain a truly healthy lifestyle.  Knowing what it takes is easy.  Doing it regularly is hard.  This executive’s point was not to prompt a self-examination of lifestyle choices, but rather to suggest that leadership is very similar.
The principles of effective leadership are neither mysterious nor awe inspiring.  When you read a book or hear a lecture on leadership, I bet you feel a lot of the basic ideas are common sense.  This is not to say there are not great books (or lectures!) on leadership, rather when we really think about the fundamental concepts, they make sense.  Knowing effective leadership is not very hard.  On the other hand, consistently demonstrating effective leadership is very hard.

An effective leader I know and respect sent out an email of congratulations.  In the message he inadvertently offended the people he was congratulating.  Why did he do this?  Why didn’t he see the immediate affront of his message?

Do you remember trying to solve those Rubik’s Cube puzzles?  Different squares of different colors that need to be lined up so that each color is only on one side.  By twisting and turning you move the little color tiles around.  Getting one side green is very easy, but the other sides end up a mess.  Fix the red side so it is all the same color and the green side becomes a mess.  Did you ever solve it on all six sides?

I think this is what happened when the leader sent out the congratulatory email.  He look at the one side and it looked good.  Send message.  Unfortunately, the rest of the Rubik’s Cube was a mess.

I recently had the opportunity to be working with a company when it announced its new name and branding logo.  Aside from a few people in the corporate head office, everyone has been kept in the dark about the new branding.  The goal was clearly to generate excitement and enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, when the announcement was made on the streaming video, the entire room sat in silence for a good 10 seconds.  Was that the new name?  Really?!?  The general manager got up and tried to lead a discussion with the 25 managers in the room about the new name and logo, but was so perplexed he wasn’t sure what to say.  Two days later, he and his other executives had a wonderful “spin” on the new name, but at the time it just fell flat.  Why hadn’t the company given the executive team a heads up on the new name so they could have been better prepared for this much anticipated moment?  I think they were only looking at one side of the Rubik’s Cube.

Part of what makes effective leadership difficult is that it looks so easy.  It is not unusual to hear undergraduate student talking about how easy their leadership classes are.  They see the concepts as obvious or easily absorbed.  Nothing like accounting or finance.  Executive MBA students, with 10-15 years of work and management experience, have a very different outlook on these classes.  They have struggled with leadership challenges for years and are yearning for answers.  They engage in nuanced discussions of trying to solve the leadership Rubik’s Cube on all six sides.

Just like the Rubik’s Cube, there are some tips and techniques that can help leaders be more successful. But like fitness and health eating, it is hard to consistently apply the principles and to anticipate all the unintended consequences.  Practice helps.  By seeking feedback and engaging in self-reflection we can learn to see the other sides of the Rubik’s Cube before we mess them up.  And like the Rubik’s Cube, leadership can be a source of endless challenge and satisfaction.


Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education


Thank You Uncle Fred

By Stephen Gilliland

Stephen  Uncle Fred 1979

Stephen and Uncle Fred, 1979

Thanksgiving is a time for giving thanks for the blessing in our lives – health, abundance, family, friendships.  As leaders, it can also be a time to thank our leadership role models, those people who have taught us valuable lessons about being an effective leader.  One of my earliest leadership role models was my Uncle Fred.  Starting when I was 14, I spent six summers on my Uncle’s farm in northern Alberta, up near the article circle when summer days are 20+ hours long.  While my school friends were enjoying summer on the lake in central British Columbia, I was driving a tractor, mending barbwire fences, and learning lessons about what it meant to work hard.

My Uncle Fred had taken over the family farm when he was a teenager.  My grandfather went to work in the coal mines to provide enough money for his family and the farm.  Uncle Fred dropped out of high school to complete the harvest one fall and never went back.  He grew that farm from a simple homestead to a large cattle and canola producing operation.  Despite his lack of formal education, Uncle Fred kept up with the latest advancements and was one of the first in the area to embrace commodity futures as a way to hedge against crop price fluctuations.

I was not a gifted farmer.  My older brother could fix anything on the farm (he is now a mechanical engineer).  I seemed better at breaking things.  But my Uncle took me when I was 14 and gave me the responsibility of raking hay.  I had to maintain the tractor and the rakes.  I learned to test the hay to see if it was dry enough to rake.  He made me the expert on hay raking – master of my small domain.

My favourite job was stacking the half ton round hay bales with a front end loader on a tractor.  We stacked the bales in the fields in the summer and then when feeding cattle in winter, they would haul the hay with a wagon that held 14 bales.  I learned to drive into a field of spot clusters of 14 bales to minimize driving time.  I could stack a field efficiently and effectively.  And my Uncle recognized my ability to stack hay and showered me with praise.  When introducing me to others in the community, he would always share with them that I was the best hay stacker he had ever seen.  Through his leadership, I gained confidence in my ability, as a hay stack, a farmer, and a person.  Years later, whenever I would see Uncle Fred, he would often reminisce about my hay stacking prowess.

My Uncle Fred died at age 84 a couple of weeks ago.  He was still actively farming.  A lifelong bachelor he kept active managing his farm, and even driving a tractor himself, up until the end.  He died suddenly of a heart attack while getting his mail in town.  It is how he would have wanted to go – he worried about losing his independence and not being able to look after himself.

I feel very fortunate that two years ago, on a family cruise in the Caribbean, I took the time to thank Uncle Fred for his lessons in leadership.  I told him about how he built my confidence and self-efficacy where there was little natural ability.  Isn’t that what great leaders do?  They bring out the best in their followers.  The leader I am today, is shaped by the leadership of my Uncle Fred.  Thank you Uncle Fred!  Have you taken the opportunity to thank your leadership role models?

Happy Thanksgiving!


Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education


The Right Way to Fall

By Stephen Gilliland

Surfing pic (2)I was surfing last week and almost got myself in big trouble.  When surfing, there is a right way to fall off your board and a wrong way.  The right way involves protecting your head from the surfboard, staying clear of the fins, and keeping off the rocks and coral on the ocean floor.  But last week I took the wrong way.  I lost my balance when trying to cut back and was going over.  Rather than flop into the water, I tried to do a forward roll.  Unfortunately, it turned out I was only in 18 inches of water and my head drove straight down into the sand, crunching my neck.  I gingerly moved my head to make sure I could and then walked to shore to assess the damage.  People have broken their necks this way, but I was lucky.  A chiropractic adjustment and several sleepless nights later, my neck is slowly healing… a painful reminder of why I need to pay as much attention to falling off the board as staying on.

Like so many things in life, there is also a leadership lesson here.  As leaders we tend to focus our attention, and the attention of our people, on strategies for success.  What does it take to successfully compete?  What does it take to deliver customer service excellence?  What does it take to stay on the board?  Most of us devote far less time and attention to falling correctly.  How do we protect ourselves and our organizations when we fall?  What does it mean to fall the right way?

I frequently challenge executives I teach to think about how they responded they last time one of their people messed up, or when they messed up.  Did they focus on the outcome or the process?  An outcome focus is on the consequences of the failure, such as financial loss or brand damage.  This focus may tempt employees to avoid taking risks and to try to hide mistakes.   A process focus looks at intentions behind the actions.  Was the “fall” a result of pursuing an innovative idea that didn’t work?  A process focus looks at the learning that resulted from the failure.  We can learn much more from our falls if we really try to understand what happened and what could have been done instead.  A process focus looks at how we protect the downside of the fall – the safety nets we put in place to limit losses. It encourages employees to innovate and allows organizations to learn from mistakes.

Service delivery errors are going to happen.  Research has demonstrated that how we recover from service failures has an enormous impact on customer satisfaction and retention.  Some research has even demonstrated greater customer commitment following a successful response to a service failure than before the failure.  Innovations can also result from looking at failures through a different lens.  Post-it Notes were the result of a failed super-strong adhesive by a 3M scientist.

Ten years ago I also had a bad fall from a surfboard when I kicked out in the water and sliced my foot open on my surfboard fin.  Since that time I have resisted the urge to kick until I know where my board is after a fall.  In the future, I will most assuredly be thinking about my head, neck, and body angle when coming off my board into the water.  The temptation in surfing and in leadership is to focus on the ride.  Effective leaders also think about the right way to fall.


Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education


Marathon vs. Sprint

By Stephen Gilliland

For years I have told people that leadership is a marathon.  You have to pace yourself.  Find a sustainable way to deliver leadership value and maintain your life.  Dig down and endure longer than you think you can.  As a runner, this metaphor made a lot of sense to me.

I ran my first and only marathon a week before my 40th birthday, almost nine years ago.  I trained for a year, suffering injuries and setbacks along the way, rebuilding slowly.  When my marathon time came – the San Diego Rock and Roll marathon – we were enjoying a summer vacation at the beaches of north county San Diego.  Five days before the marathon, I wiped out on my surfboard (another mid-life crisis hobby), kicked out of the wave, and sliced the bottom of my foot open on my surfboard fin.  Later that day in the ER I asked the doctor if stitches or no stitches would be better for running a marathon.  He laughed and said I wouldn’t be on my foot, let along running a marathon.  He didn’t understand how long I had trained.  I asked him what if I was stupid enough to try running it, and he recommended no stitches.  I was on crutches for 3 days, tried a 2 mile practice run the day before, and then ran the marathon with my foot taped tightly.

It hurt for the first 5 miles and then the endorphins kicked in.  My running partner paced me perfectly so that the marathon was fun and I finished strong. I had done it.  I trained.  I overcame adversity.  And I completed a marathon with a smile on my face and feeling strong.  I sent this picture of me crossing the finish line to the ER doctor with a thank you note hand written on the back.approaching finish

This was my leadership metaphor.  Yet, I no longer think it is right.  You see, I think leadership is actually more like a series of sprints.  Rather than carefully pacing yourself and enjoying the distance, I think most leadership positions require we go flat out as fast as we can for short bursts when it is needed.  Situations arise and we respond.

The secret of the leadership sprint is the recovery.  We can go hard and fast to do what it takes, as long as we also take time to recover, time to slow down, talk to people, recheck our priorities.  What do you do to recover in your leadership sprint?  How do you make sure you are ready for the next sprint, whenever it should occur?  For me, I check in with people – take the time to make sure they are okay.  I brainstorm new initiatives.  I clean out backlogged emails.  My non-work time is also critical to my recovery.  Connecting with my wife, my kids, my passion for cooking all help me recover.

I think what is really important in enduring the leadership sprints is to recognize the importance of the recovery process.  You see if we treat leadership as marathon, the implication is to just keep going.  But when viewing leadership as a sprint, you recognize that recovery is the key to success.  Make sure you take the time to recover!


Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education


Turning Down the Next Step

By Stephen Gilliland


Courtesy of Shutterstock

This week I am in Australia teaching leadership to Australian mining supervisors and superintendents. During one of the breaks I was talking with a couple of supervisors and asked if they wanted to be promoted to superintendent at some point. One wasn’t sure and the other gave an emphatic “no!” When I probed a little further, the reasons were interesting. First, he didn’t want the additional responsibility. As a supervisor, he works 8 days (or nights) on and then gets 6 days off. When he is off, he is off. Nothing to worry about. No emails to check. As a superintendent, he would be expected to always be in communication. When problems arise, he would need to solve them, even if he was off work.

The other reason he mentioned surprised me. He perceived more security in the job of supervisor. “You mess up as a superintendent and you’re gone, mate!” With the increased responsibility comes increased accountability. As a supervisor the responsibility is less, so the cost of mistakes is also less. This seemed obvious after he said it, but I had never heard a leader express this view before. In the words of this supervisor, “I have a family. I can’t risk losing my job.”

When you look at the half-life of top leaders (CEOs, university presidents, head coaches), you see evidence of this supervisor’s concerns. The average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO is 8-9 years (interesting side note: it has actually increased somewhat over the past 2 years). The average tenure of university presidents is 7 years (down by a year from 5 years ago). And the average tenure of a major league head coach ranges from 4.1 years for NFL coaches down to 2.5 for NHL coaches (MLB and NBA coaches are in between).

Of course, the rewards for these top positions arguably make the risks worthwhile. University of Arizona alumni Steve Kerr just accepted a five year contract as the head coach of the Golden State Warriors for $25 million. But how much money is worth the increased risk, responsibility, and workload? Again, the words of this mining supervisor were very interesting. “No, it’s not worth it. For an extra $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, it’s not worth it. What do I need that extra money for anyway?”

What a refreshing perspective? In our society of more more more, how many people would turn down a promotion to a second level leadership position that comes with a $50,000 raise, because life is more important than money? I found myself smiling and admiring this supervisor. He knows who he is. He knows what he wants. And he knows more money isn’t always better. Not if it takes time away from his family and puts their security at risk. Words of wisdom.


Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education


A Tale of Two Voices

By Stephen Gilliland

In my Ph.D. seminar, we read an article on proactive voice in organizations. This is when employees express concerns, constructive opinions, or other ideas about work related issues. Research has demonstrated that proactive voice can lead to improved work processes and innovation, team learning, and crisis prevention, among other benefits. In a 2012 paper published in the Academy of Management Journal, Jian Liang, Crystal Farh, and Jiing-Lih Farh differentiated between promotive voice and prohibitive voice. While they share similarities, an important contribution of this paper was highlighting the differences between these two types of voice.


Speak Up photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Promotive voice refers to expressions of ways to improve organizations. This is probably what most of us think of when we want employees to “speak up” and offer their ideas. Toyota made famous the practice of continuously improving manufacturing processes through more than a million ideas each year generated by their employees. Countless companies have tried to replicate this culture of promotive voice and it has become a cornerstone for innovation leaders such Google, Apple, and Amazon. The benefits have been documented in a variety of industries as companies such as Southwest Airlines, Whole Food, and Starbucks have made promotive voice a part of everyone’s job.

Much less attention has been devoted to prohibitive voice, which refers to expressions of concern about existing or impending practices, incidents, or behaviors that may harm the organization. Historically, people demonstrating prohibitive voice have been called “naysayers” or “whistle blower.” Prohibitive voice is not as often encouraged as promotive voice, and even when it is, results are often less than desired. Hospitals that have tried to develop a culture where anyone can call stop to a procedure, have trouble getting techs to offer prohibitive voice in the presence of surgeon. The result is that wrong site surgeries still occur at a rate of 40 or more (wrong site or wrong patient) failures per week in US hospitals.

We know that both types of proactive voice are increased when managers actively solicit input from employees and when managers are seen as truly listening to suggestions. The interesting finding from the research presented by Liang and colleagues is that promotive voice tends to be motivated by the belief that everyone is obligated to bring about constructive change as a part of their jobs. Think of a Toyota employee; voicing suggestions and improving processes is an expected part of work.

On the other hand, prohibitive voice tends to be motivated by a feeling that it is safe to express concerns without fear of reprisal or reprimand. To encourage prohibitive voice, managers have to create an atmosphere of psychological safety.  Every organization I have worked with would like to believe their employees would step up and do the right thing when they see an impending problem, particularly if it involves safety or potential harm. However, the evidence shows that in many cases employees fear for their jobs and remain quiet. How can we really know if our employees feels safe speaking up? If they don’t feel safe, they are unlikely to tell us about it.

A culture of candor, respect, and trust creates psychological safety. By openly communicating and sharing information with our people, we start to create this culture of candor. By treating employees fairly, justly, and with respect further develop this culture of candor. The research on the two types of voice suggest that an important part of every leaders job is to create the conditions where input is seen as everyone’s job and where people feel safe sharing both good news and bad. Leaders can start by role modeling these important behaviors.

Note: The reference for the cited article on proactive voice is Liang, J., Farh, C.I.C., Farh, J. (2012). Psychological Antecedents of Promotive and Prohibitive Voice: a Two- Wave Examination. Academy of Management Journal, 55:1:71-92.


Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education


Invisible Graceline

By Diza Sauers


Photo of Inter connectivity

I recently had the opportunity to sit on a board for an organization facing a sobering moment of fiscal instability. It had become a crazily built castle propped up by one over-burdened, highly charismatic director who had a beautiful vision, but built beyond the capacity to deliver.  The mission was altruistic, and I joined whole-heartedly, calling upon experts from my own contacts to assist in saving the ship.  Audacious goals were established, strict fiscal guidelines put into place, and a road map created.

In my life, I have had the great good fortune to have the right people appear at the right time.  They come unbidden, as if just waiting for me to open the door.  I felt that way about the group of individuals who assembled to help this organization.  Yet, despite our efforts, we failed.  The next year was a painful one to witness – goals were not met; fiscal sources dwindled; the road map yielded some dead ends.  As we wiped the star dust from our eyes and accepted some grim reality, we discovered an incredibly talented young woman embedded within the organization, a talent on the rise who was roped to a very difficult situation.  It became clear, while we might not save the ship, perhaps we could save a very deserving person.

Inevitably, the organization underwent the painful but necessary transformation.  While it wasn’t saved, it was thoroughly reorganized, pushing its existence into a short term framework: the new strategy will work or the organization will cease to exist. The very talented young woman (let’s call her Parker) awakened to the world beyond.  Through mentoring and cultivating the relationships of those around her, she moved forward to join a new organization that put her on the track to a much more visible and prominent position.  The rest of us disbanded from the board and moved on.

Recently, I was revisiting this chain of events with one of the former board members.  As we talked about the difficulty of the past year and the natural regret that comes from having made a failed investment, my colleague looked at me and said, “Perhaps that was the reason we all got together – it wasn’t to save the organization, it was to bring Parker into a better place, to better serve our community.  I can live with that.”

And she is right.  This wasn’t a failure, but a success that arrived from another direction.  I love it that these moments often come to us from circumstances usually beyond our control.  In my own life, I have watched as connections have yielded jobs, shifts in fortune have turned into transformative opportunities.  From the most unexpected quarters arrives an abrupt change in life, and if I stay open to it, a pattern usually appears that moves me toward a greater understanding, an unfolding opportunity.  With it usually comes someone or something that connects me to the world in way that enriches my life. I call these gracelines.  Invisible Gracelines.

When we sit with the right intention and build with the people who align with our values, we open up worlds and ways of connecting that lead us to an unfolding sense of purpose.   Perhaps it is the simple recognition of the way we are so inner-connected.  Perhaps it is having the balance to embrace unexpected change, to resist the urge to name something a success or a failure, but to simply move forward with what unfolds next.

It is easy to be grateful and motivated when things line up just right – we get that job, we make that connection, we nail a promotion.  But how much richer when we are able to let things go and find the graceline that weaves us all together, and accept a new way of being.



Staff directory at uofa for Eller College august 2007

Diza Sauers
Professor of Practice
Director, Business Communications Program



An Academic Life Well Lived

By Stephen Gilliland

All Images registered with the United States Copyright Offices.  Unlawful usage subject to penatly and fines. No reproduction or usage without written permission from Thomas Veneklasen photography.

Professor Keith Provan

We said goodbye to our colleague Keith Provan last week in a “Celebration of an Academic Life Well Lived.”  For the past year, Keith Provan struggled with brain cancer, undergoing multiple surgeries and treatments. On the morning of Sunday, February 16, at home and surrounded by his family, Keith died peacefully.

What does it mean to celebrate an academic life well lived?  For me, it meant recognizing and appreciating all the facets that made Keith the person he was.  Keith joined the department the same summer I started at the University of Arizona – August 1995.  I was an assistant professor and Keith was a full professor.  I looked up to him.  He treated me as an equal.

Keith was a gifted and dedicated organizational theorist. His research focused on inter-organizational and network relationships, including network structure, evolution, governance, and effectiveness, especially in the domain of health and human services. He published over 70 academic journal articles and scholarly book chapters, both in management and public policy journals.  In summers, Keith served as a Senior Research Fellow at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Throughout his career, Keith generously and enthusiastically mentored PhD students; he felt that the development of these relationships was his most meaningful professional legacy.

Clearly, Keith was a first rate academic and will be long recognized for his contributions.  The health care management division of the Academy of Management has named their outstanding scholarly achievement award in Keith’s honor.  His colleagues in public administration have named their visiting speaker series in Keith’s honor.  And an endowment has been establishing in his name to support doctoral students in the area of health care management and leadership.

But a life well lived is more than a collection of academic achievements and posthumous recognitions.  Keith’s children described a father who would turn into the “rapping dad” or the “incredible hulk wrestler” when they were kids.  His friends and colleagues describe a sense of humor that was quick and fun.  He spent summers in Europe and further escaped the Arizona heat with his wife Jill at their place in San Francisco.

Keith enjoyed everything about being an academic and would often say he never saw a reason to retire.  But he also enjoyed life beyond academia.  He blended academic and non-academic worlds harmoniously.  Loving what you do; balancing work and life; fostering meaningful relationships; and maintaining a sense of humor right up to the end.  That is a life well lived!  That is a model for all of us.

We will miss you Keith.



Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education


Not Part of My Job Description, But…

By Stephen Gilliland


Photo of Helping Hands courtesy of Shutterstock

This week in my Ph.D. seminar we read an article on managers providing emotional support for employees. In the spring 2013 issue of Academy of Management Review, Ginka Toegel and her colleagues reported the results of a qualitative study in which they examined emotional helping from both the managers’ and employees’ perspectives. The results are both interesting and somewhat surprising.

We have all been in this role as managers. Sometimes it is the employee who is having trouble at home. Sometimes it is the employee who is having trouble getting along with co-workers. We lend an ear. We offer advice. We provide encouragement. Sometimes it is the most rewarding thing we will do all week. Sometimes it is not easy and leaves us feeling emotionally drained.

The thing is I bet none of us have “offer emotional support to direct reports” on our job description. This is something we just do because we are managers.  And so often, the timing is not great. I bet I am not the only one who has been trying to put the final touches on a long overdue report when an employee appears at the door with those fateful words, “do you have a minute?” You know the only answer is “sure.” An employee with real emotional needs take precedence over almost everything else.

So here is where the study by Toegel and her colleagues is interesting. When they asked managers of a mid-sized recruiting agency about emotional helping, the managers described this as “over and above” their normal managerial duties – these are extra-role behaviors. Employees, on the other hand, viewed the same emotional support as a part of a managers prescribed role – part of their job. While this might not be entirely surprising, it has important consequences. Since managers see it as discretionary, over and above behavior, there is an unspoken expectation of reciprocity. As the company CEO in this study noted: “It is human nature, isn’t it? 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.”

Employees don’t see it this way. Since they view emotional support as part of the manager’s job, they have no expectation of reciprocity. This can leave managers feeling disappointed with the lack of reciprocity. Have you ever provided extensive support to someone only to have them leave for another job? And you wonder “why did I bother? Why did I invest all that energy?” We have an expectation that our emotional support will be reciprocate with some degree of loyalty.

There is a silver lining for leaders in these discrepant expectations. You see, because employees view emotional supporting as part of a managers’ job, they also give “leadership credit” to managers who offer support. Emotionally supportive managers are seen as good leaders and are praised by subordinated for their human touch.

Maybe this is an area where employees have it right. In business we focus so much on results that the human element is often downplayed or ignored – it is not part of a manager’s job description. Yet, results can be a function of a favorable business climate or market leading products and services. Leaders get credit regardless of how much they actually drive the results. Is it possible that the core of true leadership is the ability to offer the human touch?

Note: The reference for the cited article on emotional helping is Toegel, G., Kilduff, M., Anand, N. (2013). Emotion Helping by Managers: an Emergent Understanding of Discrepant Role Expectations and Outcomes. Academy of Management, 56:2:334-357.



Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education