Leadership is a balancing act.

Plenty of experts and studies note that the best route to empowered, engaged employees is to trust them and leave them alone. But weighed against this minimalist management approach, another small army of advisers repeatedly tells managers that their teams crave feedback, appreciation, and guidance. So what's a confused entrepreneur to do? How can you find that sweet spot between outright neglect and annoying micromanagement?

A massive new study of more than 30,000 U.S. and Canadian employees, executives, and middle managers claims to have found a definitive answer to this tricky question. The magic number, according to the survey from research firm Leadership IQ: six hours per employee per week.

More Is Better…Up to a Point

The results show that almost half of us spend fewer than three hours a week with our bosses. They also show that increasing that amount of contact has some serious benefits--at least up to a point. Take inspiration for example. "We found that their inspiration increases significantly every hour [employees] spend interacting with their leader, up to six hours," says the study report. Moving from one to six hours of weekly contact with the boss increased employee inspiration by 29 percent but, after six hours, inspiration actually started to take a hit.

Other questions around engagement, innovation, and motivation found similar patterns. Six is the sweet spot, so that the more time teams spent with their leaders up to that point the better, but beyond that, time with the boss hurt rather than helped. Even more startling than the consistency of these findings, perhaps, is the fact that they seem to hold no matter how much people actually like their boss.

For people "who do not feel positive about their leader (they feel like their leader does not value their work), the more time they spend interacting with their leader, the more inspired they feel," claims the report. "Essentially, even after controlling for people's feelings about their leader, these findings show a robust relationship between time spent interacting with one's leader and increased inspiration."

Takeaways

So what are the takeaways here beyond the obvious nudge to leaders to get a bit more hands-on if they're currently falling short of the six-hours-a-week mark? Leadership IQ CEO Mark Murphy offered a few to Fast Company:

  • Telecommuting can work. The study findings that there are diminishing returns to more and more face time supports the idea that part-time telecommuting shouldn't ding innovation or engagement. "There really is a point of diminishing returns here," Murphy said. "Sitting with the boss for 20 hours a week doesn't help."
  • You can't truly manage more than seven people. "You can have 50 employees, but you're not really managing 50 employees. You can monitor them, but you can't really manage them. There are limits on span of control," Murphy claims.
  • You can rack up six hours in a variety of ways. The study counted phone calls, face time, and even emails from the boss as time spent together, so there's no need to think that you have to formally schedule this exact amount of time with each employee each week. In fact, that might be a little weird. "If you try to instantly go from zero to six, it's kind of hard," Murphy said. He recommends having "one really good, meaningful conversation this week" to get started.

How many hours a week are you spending with your employees?