Business Psychology

Article No. 349
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Avoiding Your Supervisor

New research reveals a problem.

When we hire entry-level employees, we assign them hours and days off, responsibilities and duties, and a supervisor. (If your business is small, it may be you.)

Once new people are on the job, we watch them. We have a lot of concerns: are they doing the job, are they fitting in, and so on. Most likely, we've organized this probationary period to make sure we don't miss anything. We want fresh, new employees to become great, veteran employees as soon as possible.

Sushil Nifadkar, from Georgia State University, is interested in this probationary period of employment, and he has found that supervisors are also on probation at this time. New employees watch them, and they keep score, too.

Professor Nifadkar began with a popular theory regarding emotions. People remember and keep track of their emotional reactions to others. For example, if you ask an employee if he/she likes a supervisor and then ask "why," then you'll often hear emotion-based answers such as "He makes me feel nervous," or "She makes me feel appreciated." If you continue your questioning, then you'll notice that there aren't many facts, but the description of emotion is rich and clear. Nifadkar explains that people regard their own emotional reactions as facts. He also notes that emotional reactions are not all equally important. Negative emotional reactions are much more potent than positive ones.

A second theory Nifadkar considered involves typical interpersonal behavior in new settings. New employees either approach unfamiliar people or avoid them depending upon how they feel -- their emotional reactions. The two theories fit together like teeth on the gears of a watch. New employees keep track of their emotional reactions to their new supervisors and use this "information" to decide whether to approach their supervisors with job-relevant questions or to avoid them and figure out their new jobs on their own. Of course, Nifadkar is pretty sure avoiding one's supervisor leads to a poorer job adjustment, and so, armed with two pretty good theories and a prediction about new employee adjustment, he went to work.

Nifadkar found a large IT business that was experiencing rapid turnover in its entry-level employees. He studied 291 of them in a research design that also included their supervisors. He measured job adjustment factors such as role clarity (are new people clear about their roles), social adjustment (are they fitting in with co-workers), task mastery (can they do the work), in-role performance (are they actually doing the job), and helping behavior (are they helping out when needed.)

Professor Nifadkar found the reactions he expected. New people with negative emotional reactions to their supervisors avoided them, and doing so hurt their adjustment to the new job. New people with positive emotional reactions sought them out, and their adjustment to the job was much better. He also found that a few negative emotional reactions easily outweighed more numerous positive ones. The negative reactions were more potent.


Nifadkar explained it from an evolutionary perspective. It is much better to miss an opportunity (a positive emotional experience) than it is to miss a threat (a negative emotional experience). A threat, e.g. a saber-toothed tiger, may eat you. A missed opportunity may arise again. For the record, Nifadkar measured nine specific supervisory verbal behaviors that prompted negative emotional reactions: "[My supervisor] uses offensive language with me," "speaks disrespectfully with me," "gets into loud arguments with me," "speaks rudely with me," "attacks me personally when I don't agree with his/her ideas," "interrupts me when I am talking," "cross-questions my statements," "shouts at me," and "makes fun of my ideas."

Nifadkar has two suggestions for us. First, be careful not to do the negative things he measured, and second, notice if new employees are avoiding you. If they are, assume you did or said something to trigger a negative emotional reaction and correct it. Increase your contact with the person, and be careful how you speak to him/her.

Reference: Nifadkar, Sushil, Anne S. Tsui, Blake E. Ashforth (2012) The Way You Make Me Feel and Behave: Supervisor-Triggered Newcomer Affect and Approach-Avoidance Behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 55 (5), 1146-1168.

© Management Resources

See Also:

The Social Costs of Seeking Help

Emotional Regulation on the Job

Acting Out at Work

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