Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 110
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Life on the Tightrope

Researchers explore ways managers can enhance their reputations.

Put yourself in the position of a newly-promoted, first-line supervisor for a moment and consider your position. You were selected because you're reliable, hard working, and well liked. And your managers expect you'll get good cooperation from your employees. But they also expect your area to maintain or improve upon past output levels.

Your employees, on the other hand, recognize you as one of them. They believe you'll represent them to upper management, so they expect more understanding, less pressure, and fewer problems.

Contradictory expectations?! Oh, yes!!

Now, stay with this supervisor a few moments longer and look ahead. Both groups will evaluate you and make judgments about you, but these impact each other. If your employees decide you're a traitor believing you've sold them out, they'll withhold discretionary effort and cooperation, and the managers who are watching you will notice. Conversely, if your managers feel they're talking to an employee representative whenever you speak up, they'll say you're having trouble making the transition to management, and they'll ignore your requests for needed resources. Your employees will notice this neglect, you'll appear quite impotent to them, and they'll begin to ignore you, too.

The only comforting aspect of contradictory expectations like these is that every manager at every level, in every organization, faces them. This supervisor has a lot of company.

Anne S. Tsui, who holds appointments at both Hong Kong University and the University of California at Irvine, recently led a team of researchers who studied the problem of contradictory expectations. They explored the outcomes of various strategies mid-level managers employ to respond to them, and they found that some strategies lead to enhanced reputations of competence, while others led to diminished reputations.

Tsui and her team examined 2 groups of middle managers, 316 managers in a public service agency, and 94 managers in a Fortune 500 service firm. They began by identifying strategies the managers used in these difficult circumstances, and they found several familiar tactics:

    1. Managers tried harder, displaying increased effort.
    2. Managers explained their actions to enhance understanding.
    3. Managers tried to alter people's expectations to better match their managerial actions.
    4. Managers enlisted the help of powerful allies to persuade people to change their expectations.
    5. Managers avoided contradictory expectations by ignoring them, avoiding people who held them, distorting information, and by reorganizing people or assignments.

Next, Tsui and her team considered these managers' reputations and found that using increased effort and explanations (#s 1 & 2) enhanced reputations; while attempts to alter expectations (#s 3 & 4) generally backfired and led to diminished reputations. They did, however, notice an exception in the Fortune 500 firm. Executives and peers in this company did not react negatively to managers' efforts to alter their expectations. Finally, avoidance tactics (#5) always led to diminished reputations.

Tsui's team also noticed one more curious finding: Merely asking for negative feedback had a positive impact on managers' reputations, while asking for positive feedback had the opposite effect. It led to diminished reputations. So being open to criticism enhanced reputations while signalling a desire to avoid it hurt reputations.

Reference: Tsui, Anne S., Susan J. Ashford, Lynda St. Clair, and Katherine R. Xin (1995). Dealing with Discrepant Expectations: Response Strategies and Managerial Effectiveness. Academy of Management Journal, 38 (6), 1515-1543.

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