COMPANY CULTURE

How Caring Should a Boss Be?

Your employees expect your compassion--but that doesn't mean they are grateful for it. Does that change how you treat them?
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Apparently all those leaders who say their business “is like a family” aren’t just fooling themselves. As in real families, the senior members give and give and give and the junior members are ungrateful.

A study in a recent Academy of Management Journal finds that employees are no more loyal to “caring” bosses who offer emotional support in tough times than to bosses who run the other way when they hear a snuffle coming from a cubicle. It’s a problem of mismatched expectations, reports the study, by researchers from IMD and the University of London. When a manager proffers a sympathetic ear and consoling words, she naturally wants the worker restored to equilibrium and back on the job. But many managers also expect employees to show appreciation by working harder or staying longer with the company. Employees, by contrast, regard shows of compassion as part of managers’ regular duties and not deserving of reciprocation.

In the study, 75 percent of respondents--both lower-level workers and middle managers--reported receiving emotional support from their superiors. But none felt indebted. Bosses, by contrast, believed their gestures of kindness transcended the call of duty and deserved a response. “If I buy you a drink it’s sort of expected that the next time around you’ll by me one,” complained one respondent. “It’s in every element of our culture--except the workplace.”

Now I’m not sentimental about office life, but this sounds like an unusually cold-blooded approach to working relationships. As Stacy mumbles soothing words and forks over tissues to a sobbing Eileen, is she mentally calculating how many weekends she can ask her to work? Does Eileen take for granted that Stacy will spend an hour listening to her woes because that’s what she is paid to do? What’s wrong with these people?

But there’s nothing like money to put everyone on the same page. A recent University of Colorado study reports that employers who make loans to workers in financial crisis--and apparently a great many have, with an average sum of $1,000--expect loyalty in return. And they receive it. The researchers found that employers had better luck retaining people to whom they had loaned money. Not surprisingly, employers were more likely to make informal--as opposed to contract-based--loans to superior performers.

In the lexicon of Wharton professor Adam Grant, the managers in these studies are “matchers.” They are willing to be generous but expect something in return. The employees who trade loyalty for loans are also matchers. But those who believe personal support is in their bosses’ job descriptions are “takers” who want more than they give back. Grant, a lovely, optimistic guy, thinks organizations and the world in general would be better places if more people acted like “givers” (whose definition is self-evident). In fact, some managers in the AMJ study did say that they acted from “Christian charity” or because it was “the right thing to do.” But they were in the minority.

I guess I feel as though managers and employees should view these situations in purely human terms, as one individual reaching out from compassion and another accepting that gesture with appreciation. Mostly, though, I feel they should just be avoided. There is a risk whenever intimacy enters a professional relationship. The manager may learn details about the employee’s life that he’s better off not knowing; he may imply that he will look leniently on a falloff in performance while things are rocky; and he may shred the membrane of objectivity and distance necessary to evaluate and discipline the employee when things return to normal. How do you fire someone who has spread out her heart and soul before you on your desk?

There are ways to support a distressed worker without getting too personally involved. Be flexible about time off. Let him work from home for a while, if that makes things easier. Look the other way when he and his best work buddy are half an hour coming back from lunch. Establish an office-wide compassionate fund from which any approved employee can borrow, thus de-personalizing loans.

Some managers are sweethearts who naturally want to do everything they can to make others feel better. That’s lovely, really it is. But it changes the manager-managed dynamic in subtle, sometimes destructive ways. IMD professor Anand Narasimhan suggests that, “maybe the lesson for all concerned is to avoid unrealistic expectations.” I would add this one: be kind but keep it professional.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Nov 6, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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