By Stephen Gilliland
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.
Associate Dean, Executive Education