Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 299
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Unforgiving

New research sheds light on persistently irritable employees.

Some employees seem to hold a grudge against their supervisors. Courteous greetings are answered with grunts. Reasonable instructions are answered with antagonistic questions. Walking into a room brings a sudden silence as if the supervisor were the topic of conversation. Correction quickly inflames into confrontation with voices raised and well-rehearsed counter accusations flung wildly, throwing supervisors on the defensive. And any slight error by the supervisor is immediately blown out of proportion and retold to any who will listen. Such employees are pains in the . . . For supervisors, such employees are unforgiving, and they make the supervisor�s job pretty miserable.

Charitable supervisors imagine family pressures or financial worries as lying at the heart of the problem. Perhaps not enough sex . . . But they usually don�t imagine that they themselves are at fault. After all, other employees get along fine with the supervisor. If the supervisor was doing something to trigger this reaction, wouldn�t all the employees display a similar persistent irritability?

Tony Simons from Cornell University recently completed a study that sheds new light on persistently irritable employees, and although he wouldn�t quarrel with a supervisor�s assertion that some irritable employees have money or family problems, or don�t get enough sex, he did notice patterns to this irritability, and his explorations of these patterns led to some new understandings that will help supervisors.

Simons investigated employee reactions to two supervisory behaviors. The first is follow-through. For example, when an employee requests new tools to help him in his job and the supervisor promises to get these tools, actually delivering these tools is an example of follow-through. When an employee requests help with a benefits problem and the supervisor promises to speak to human resources, reporting what he learns from this contact is an example of follow-through.

The second supervisory behavior Simons investigated was acting on espoused values. For example, when an airline ticket supervisor emphasizes customer service and directs his employees to deliberately overbook flights, he is not acting on his espoused values. When a retail supervisor emphasizes customer service until a dip in profits prompts her to encourage clerks to serve several customers at once, thereby increasing sales and reducing customer service, she is not acting on her espoused values.

Simons began his study with a belief that supervisors who do a poor job of following through and acting on their espoused values would be more likely to have persistently irritable employees, but a funny thing happened on the way to this finding. He encountered a problem with perception.

In order for employees to believe that their supervisors were doing a poor job of these functions, the employees had to notice them, and often they didn�t. Employees vary in their perception of their supervisors� following through and acting on their espoused values. The people who noticed it seemed to be watching for it. They seemed to be expecting to be disappointed. As Simons explored further, he made two findings that will be useful for supervisors.

First, he found a betrayal effect. For example, when Black employees find themselves working for a Black supervisor, they often expect greater understanding and maybe even preferential treatment from a �brother.� Expectations run high. But when reality reveals a supervisor unable to deliver on these high expectations, a sense of betrayal poisons the relationship and Black employees are more likely to become persistently irritable. He specifically found this to be true for Blacks working for Black supervisors.

A similar situation occurs when women find themselves working for a female supervisor. When expectations run high about working with a �sister,� and reality intrudes, a sense of betrayal can result in at least a few persistently irritable female employees. When older employees find themselves working for older supervisors, the same unmet expectations can lead to disappointment, anger, and persistent irritability. When Chinese employees find themselves working for Chinese supervisors . . . When Hispanic employees . . . And on it goes. The similarity in supervisor and employee often leads to expectations that heighten sensitivity to follow-through and acting on espoused values. It is this heightened sensitivity that supervisors need to anticipate among their employees.

Second, Simons found a trickle down effect. He found it when he asked supervisors the same questions he had asked their employees, enabling supervisors to report on the follow through and acting on espoused values performance of their bosses. When supervisors reported greater disappointment with their bosses� follow through and acting on espoused values, then the supervisors� own employees reported the same things about the supervisors. Simons found that supervisors mimic the same behaviors they describe of their managers and create for their employees the same conditions for disappointment that they themselves experience. Poor follow through and acting on espoused values trickles down from upper levels of management, and, presumably, the reverse is also true. Consistent follow through and acting on espoused values also trickles down.

The question for supervisors who experience poor follow through and acting on espoused values is clear and difficult. Will you perform these functions well in spite of your managers? Holding this question clearly in your mind will help you resist mimicking your managers, and your employees will be grateful that you have done it.

Reference: Simons, Tony, Leigh Anne Liu, Ray Friedman, and Judi Parks (2007) Racial Differences in Sensitivity to Behavioral Integrity: Attitudinal Consequences, In-Group Effect, and �Trickle Down� Among Black and Non-Black Employees. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(3), 650-665.

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