Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 272
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

One of the Guys

New research finds an antidote for the doubt and suspicion that sometimes greets new supervisors.

Back in the good old days, we followed a different practice in staffing the first-line supervisor position. We considered the group this person would lead, and then we looked for an ideal group member to take over as supervisor. This ideal person was energetic, knew the work, and related well with others. Further, this ideal person resembled the group. If the group was all women, we looked for a woman. If it was all men, we looked for a man. We tried to match age, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic backgrounds. We even tried to match interests, and maybe even religion.

EEOC changed all that, but in making this change we lost sight of the reasons we had been doing it in the first place.

Work groups have collective work that they do, and they care about this work. They want to complete this work efficiently and effectively, and groups know instinctively that they need supervisors to be dedicated to this goal.

When ideal group members are made supervisors, then projection works in their favor and reassures work groups that these supervisors can be trusted to be dedicated to the group’s goals and the group’s interests. Group members project their own attitudes about the work on the new supervisor and assume that this person shares these attitudes. The resemblance between them encourages this trust.

With the implementation of equal employment practices, new supervisors today often do not resemble the groups they lead, and the consequences of this are most acutely felt by the supervisors themselves. A woman, for example, facing a new group of male subordinates may hear their words of welcome but also feel their suspicion and lack of confidence. A black man may hear reassurances from white subordinates that race doesn’t matter yet feel their distance.

New supervisors who sense suspicion and a lack of confidence often have a strategy to combat it: they try to be “one of the guys.” Unfortunately, this can lead to comical scenes of men attending baby showers, and women learning to play poker as they lose their nickels.

Barbara van Knippenberg is a professor at Vrije Universiteit in the Netherlands. Recently, she has studied two separate leadership theories with a goal of integrating them into a unified theory, and one of the first problems she explored was the problem new supervisors face when they are different from their subordinates.

Ms. van Knippenberg’s analysis led her to the conclusion that new leaders who are different and who arouse doubt and suspicion can allay these negative feelings by demonstrating, through their words and actions, their commitment to the group’s goals and interests. She also believes that the easiest and fastest way new leaders can demonstrate this commitment is to perform occasional acts of self-sacrifice.

In an experiment posing new supervisors who were similar to the groups they led with new supervisors who were different from their groups, those who were different, yet also demonstrated self-sacrifice in a group task they assigned, prompted their new subordinates to outperform all others on this task. Subordinates of these “different” supervisors also strongly endorsed these new supervisors as effective, charismatic, and committed to the group and its goals. Their doubt and suspicion vanished with a single statement from their supervisor – a statement which informed them that the supervisor would also perform the task and accept a higher goal than group members received.

This single statement demonstrated the ease with which these doubts and suspicions were allayed, and it astonished Ms. van Knippenberg. The impact on task performance also surprised her. No one had yet demonstrated a significant impact on task performance before her experiments, although many had tried.

Leader self-sacrifice has a long, storied history in leadership. Alexander the Great always led his armies into battle and was wounded many times. He also never lost a battle. After the 9-11 attack, the CEO of a Dutch Airline sharply reduced his own salary before asking any employees to accept wage and hour reductions. However, Ms. van Knippenberg emphasizes that supervisor self-sacrifice need not be often or significant to have the intended effect. She cites, for example, merely filling in for a subordinate so he can have a day off as an appropriate example.

Reference: van Knippenberg, Barbara and Daan van Knippenberg (2005) Leader Self-Sacrifice and Leadership Effectiveness: The Moderating Role of Leader Prototypicality. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90 (1), 25-37.

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