Business Psychology

Article No. 328
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Rousing the Troops

Research reveals a surprising way supervisors can stimulate employee vigor.

Imagine you supervise five people. Every day, reports flow to upper management verifying that these people earned their money: A time clock documents their presence. Work reports and activity logs describe tasks that were completed, and performance reports reassure upper management that adequate skill and effort were brought to bear on the work. Given all these reports, why do upper managers still insist on walking through to look things over for themselves? What are they looking for, anyway?

The answer, of course, is lots of things. They want to be sure work priorities reflect their priorities. They want to feel reassured that the reports they receive can be trusted, and they want to see how people work.

How people work . . . Are they bored? Angry? Are they standing around waiting for instructions? Insight into how people work doesn't come through reports. Executives must walk through to find out, and supervisors have a lot at stake in the impressions their people make during these walk-throughs. Recent research by Abraham Carmeli from Bar-Ilan University in Israel will help them.

Carmeli studies employee vigor. Invigorated employees work hard, and they enjoy working hard. They have great capacity. They are energized by working together and do so happily, and their efforts mesh together like fine gears in a watch. They watch for opportunities to help each other. Best of all, invigorated employees display their energy for everyone to see. Executives love to see invigorated employees. It's one of the things they're looking for.

Professor Carmeli looks for factors that influence employee vigor, and a recent study revealed one. It's not what you would expect. With much preliminary work behind him, Carmeli posed and tested the following logical sequence that describes how supervisors can stimulate vigor in a group of employees. Here it is:

First, employees copy behaviors they see supervisors use. Carmeli was particularly interested in relational behaviors. These are typical comments, actions, and reactions that supervisors use in relating to other people, especially to employees.

Second, if supervisory behaviors that employees observe are positive and effective, then employees will copy these behaviors in interacting with each other. Effective relational behaviors foster open communication and collaboration. When employees use these behaviors, then employee relationships will be characterized by trust, mutual caring, cooperation, and helpfulness - healthy human relationships.

Third, healthy relationships among employees who work together will result in a new energy in the group that employees will enjoy. Over time, strong bonds will form among these employees. Carmeli calls it "social bonding." Onlookers will use the term "invigorated" to describe what they see.

Finally, employees experiencing healthy relationships with co-workers, social bonding, and vigor will also have superior group performance.

Carmeli tested his ideas with 290 employees and 15 managers in an Israeli organization and found that he was right. The model works. Managers whose employees noticed effective supervisory behaviors in relating to employees copied these behaviors, and all the pieces of the model fell into line just as Carmeli predicted. Supervisors can stimulate vigor and all the good things that follow from it. All they have to do is routinely practice positive, effective relational behaviors that their employees can observe and copy.

Think of your own behaviors. Typically, supervisors employ a variety of positive, effective interpersonal behaviors, like tools from a toolbox, depending upon the needs and opportunities that present themselves. Of the dozens of these behaviors that you use every day, which ones would you most want your people to copy and use with each other? Here are my nominations.

�We-need� comments. Instead of giving instructions, announce that �we need to . . .� and let people respond as they choose. Such comments invite collaboration and imply trust, trusting that the responses employees make will be acceptable and effective in meeting the need.

Validation questions. Your employees watch what�s going on. They�re onlookers, and they are able to answer questions about the effect of work efforts, even the efforts of supervisors. For example, ask �Do you think this customer understood me?� or �I tried to be patient with this customer. Did I seem patient to you?� By asking validation questions, you are asking for feedback. If employees copy this behavior, then your work group will become self-correcting.

Finally, �Is there anything I can do to help?� Wouldn�t it be nice if employees copied this behavior? If they were alert for opportunities to help each other and asked for help when it was needed?

Supervisors are constantly teaching their employees by their example. Thanks to Carmeli, we now know that effective relational behaviors lead to improved vigor and superior performance.

Reference: Carmeli, Abraham, Batia Ben-Hador, David Waldman, and Deborah Rupp (2009) How Leaders Cultivate Social Capital and Nurture Employee Vigor: Implications for Job Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94 (6), 1553-1561.

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