Business Psychology

Article No. 324
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

To Provoke Cooperation

A group of studies sheds light on leadership effectiveness.

Few things irritate a supervisor more than a mistake by one employee that could have been prevented by another employee, but wasn’t. Loss, injury, hurt feelings . . . all these negatives could have been avoided if people had been working together in a spirit of cooperation and common purpose. Instead, two employees have grievously erred, and the loss will have to be borne. What a waste! It’s enough to drive a well-meaning supervisor to do something. But what?

Working with cooperation and common purpose is a desirable state, even elegant, like a fine waltz. Distressingly, it’s not as common as we would like, and when it’s absent, we look to the leader to fix it. Just fix it, but the assignment is not so easy to accomplish.

To bring about cooperation and common purpose . . .

One tactic supervisors often try is to model the behaviors and attitudes they want others to copy – to lead by example.

Supervisors following this strategy will be alert to the work being done, and they will help when they see an opportunity. They will step away from their own work to do so. They may even work beyond expectations by filling in for an absent person or staying late to finish a pressing assignment. Such leaders will talk about the importance of the group’s work and of achieving their goals. They will talk about working together cooperatively and about the benefit to everyone of getting all the work done on time, correctly, and without mistakes. Cooperation and common purpose will be important to them, and no one will be able to mistake it.

Sometimes this tactic works. Sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, supervisors are usually worse off than before, for now, not only do people not cooperate, they also expect extra help from the supervisor. David DeCremer from Erasmus University has studied this problem. Indeed, he carried out five studies, each creating a clearer understanding of why role modeling sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

DeCremer based his investigations on a follower-centered approach to leadership. This approach acknowledges that leaders only exist with followers, so to understand why cooperative role modeling does not always work requires a closer examination of the employees who experience this role modeling.

Everyone has goals and fears, things they hope will happen and things they’re afraid will happen. Some days, goals will be more important. Other days, fears will be more important. For some people, goals dominate their thinking on most days. For other people, fears dominate their thinking on most days. DeCremer made a distinction between these two. He calls the first “promotion” and the second “prevention.”

A promotion focus finds people thinking about ways to reach positive outcomes and become their ideal selves. They feel a need to grow and develop. A prevention focus finds people thinking of ways to avoid unpleasant situations. They think about their duties and obligations. They feel a need to satisfy basic security needs.

DeCremer guessed that people with a predominant prevention focus would react positively to cooperative role modeling. They’re already thinking about duties and obligations, so when they experience cooperative role modeling, they merely assume a new obligation. They feel obligated to repay the supervisor for his cooperation and extra effort by displaying cooperation and extra effort themselves. People with a predominant promotion focus don’t have this positive reaction.

In five separate studies, DeCremer used a variety of ways to measure cooperative role modeling, prevention focus, promotion focus, and cooperation among co-workers. All five studies yielded the same finding. People with a predominant prevention focus responded to cooperative role modeling by becoming more cooperative. People with a predominant promotion focus did not.

The key, says DeCremer, is congruence. When supervisors model cooperation, they stimulate specific values in employees. If employees have these values, then they notice the supervisor’s role modeling, and it triggers the prevention values they already have. Prevention values then lead them to a new obligation to adopt the cooperative, group-centered behaviors the supervisor is hoping to stimulate. But if these prevention values are absent or not dominant at that time, then the process stops. No specific values are triggered. No changes in cooperation will occur.

What to do?

Supervisors can influence the values that dominate a person’s attention. Now that we know that a predominant focus on prevention values greatly improves the success of cooperative role modeling, it is only a small step for creative supervisors to devise ways to make these values more prominent in employees’ minds. For example, a comment about preventable mistakes threatening the jobs of everyone will draw employees’ attention to the personal loss that could follow if cooperation is ignored. Prevention values will be stimulated, and employees will then be primed to react positively to cooperative role modeling.

Reference: DeCremer, David, David Mayer, Marius van Dijke, Barbara Schouten, and Mary Bardes (2009) When Does Self-Sacrificial Leadership Motivate Prosocial Behavior? It Depends on Followers’ Prevention Focus. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(4), 887-899.

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