Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 139
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Supervisors Who Notice

New research offers a way to help supervisors and reveals a mistake we can correct.

Perhaps you remember this classic psychololgy experiment from school: Place a hungry pigeon in a box with an empty feeding tray and drop small pieces of food in the tray at random intervals, 10 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, and so on. The pigeon stays pretty hungry and soon begins to notice behaviors that seem to be rewarded with a piece of food: standing on one foot, pecking a particular spot in the box, hopping, turning around, and so on.

Do this with a dozen pigeons and come back at the end of the day, and you'll be amazed at the frantic dances these hungry pigeons will be performing, twisting, hopping, pecking in odd ways, even holding their wings outstretched, every one different.

This is the world of experimental psychology, but do you suppose it is so very different from the workplace?

Scott Bryant, of the Inland Container Corporation, and formerly from the University of Southern Mississippi, recently found that it wasn't. To be sure, Bryant wasn't looking for employees hopping on one foot, and he didn't find any. He tested a psychological principle that applied in the pigeon experiment to see if it had value in guiding first-line supervisors to be more successful managing their employees, and it did.

Bryant focused his attention on 82 supervisors in his company, collecting data from their subordinates and their managers. Subordinates completed 2 sections of a standard leadership survey. They also answered 16 questions Bryant wrote. Bryant's questions asked employees if their supervisors noticed their work. His questions for the supervisors' managers assessed these supervisors' performance managing their employees.

Bryant expected the scores from the standard leadership survey and managers' performance ratings to correspond: highly rated supervisors would score high on the leadership survey and low rated supervisors would score low. He found this to be true. But he was more interested in the questions he wrote. Would they follow a similar pattern? He found that they did.

Bryant's questions were based on a theory posed in 1986 that centered on the importance of an interpersonal event that occurs countless times and lasts only a few seconds each time it occurs: noticing work. Noticing work is only important if the employee doing the work realizes the supervisor has done it. If this occurs, then employees will respond by working more effectively. If it doesn't, then performance will decline.

Bryant's section of the survey asked if supervisors questioned employees about their work, watched them work, checked work in progress and completed work, and checked records. Items also asked if supervisors commented to employees about their work, commented about employees' strengths and weaknesses, and rewarded employee efforts by expressing appreciation and pleasure. The more of these behaviors employees noticed, the higher the score awarded to the supervisor. To Bryant's delight, the analysis revealed that supervisors performing these behaviors most frequently also scored highest on the leadership survey and on manager ratings of performance. Low scoring supervisors followed a similar pattern. The theory was supported.

This finding gives managers a new topic to bring to their supervisors' attention and it offers the hope that developing skill in this brief interpersonal event will improve performance.

Of course, there's also a disturbing side to this finding. If employees become aware of supervisors noticing something besides work, then they'll get better at that, for example, complaining. If supervisors don't notice work, but pay close attention to griping, then employees will neglect work and become prodigious complainers. Like pigeons twisting and hopping on one foot, we've undoubtedly created a host of bizarre employee behaviors by failing to appreciate the power of our noticing to mold behavior. Thanks to Mr. Bryant, we'll no longer be able to commit this mistake out of ignorance.

Reference: Bryant, Scott E. and Ernest B. Gurman (1996). Contingent Supervisory Behavior. Group and Organizational Management, 21 (4), 404-413.

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