Workers Expect Bosses to Help with Emotional Issues

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 11, 2013

You give and give only to be taken for granted. That’s what middle managers often think—the ones who find themselves listening to and advising employees about their problems, new research from the U.K. reveals.

A report published in a recent 2013 issue of Academy of Management Journal found that while managers see themselves as going beyond the call of duty when they help employees sort out their personal and job-related woes, workers see it as part of a supervisor’s job.

And managers expect the same kind of help from those above them, said lead researcher Ginka Toegel, a professor at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland.

Even when employee assistance programs (EAPs) exist in bigger organizations, “people somehow expect their managers to provide this kind of [emotional] help on a day-to-day basis,” Toegel told SHRM Online.

The findings of Toegel and colleagues N. Anand of IMD and Martin Kilduff of the University College London are based on their survey of 67 employees (38 women and 29 men) and hourlong interviews with 30 of those workers at the main office of a recruiting agency in London.

The firm specializes in providing managerial staff for retail outlets such as grocery stores, and its HR department’s responsibilities extend to the main office and all the company’s subsidiaries.

Toegel described the corporate culture as “very benevolent,” with a high level of trust. Direct reports, she estimated, were between ages 28 and 33 and the average age of managers was between 45 and 48. Employees worked in open-plan rooms of town houses located in a residential area of the city.

Turnover was lower at the firm than at its competitors; when employees left, after about five years, it was because the “very flat” organization provided few opportunities for advancement, Toegel said.

Crying on the Boss’s Shoulder

Managers would rather employees simply do their work and solve any problems among themselves, Toegel acknowledged. Some who help, though, expect payback from employees, such as greater company loyalty and being available to stay late when needed.

“The rationale,” she explained, “is ‘I was available when you needed me; now I need you.’” When that didn’t happen, managers tended to feel let down or unhappy over what they saw as a lack of gratitude.

That was the case with one manager who spent a lot of time providing emotional support to a female staffer who was having personal problems and who then resigned just as she was “turning the corner,” the researchers found. Other downsides include managers’ fear that employees will become overly dependent on them—one manager joked that she had become “the agony aunt.”

Some managers, though, believe that providing emotional support—whether by being a good listener, offering advice or putting the situation in a different light—creates a positive work environment and happier employees.

Toegel pointed to one senior manager with good coaching skills whom 29 people in the survey, some of whom were not his direct reports, identified as an emotional helper. He didn’t solve their problems but reframed how workers perceived a situation, and they left his office feeling better. He saw his involvement as being in the company’s best interest.

Workers would rather talk to a manager than a workplace friend about a problem because they view the manager as a mother or father figure, someone who is “more senior, someone who they could look up to, someone who has a lot of experience,” Toegel said.

However, “We need to be realistic. We cannot assume that all managers have those [helping] skills,” she said, and recommended that managers receive coaching on how to help employees handle their problems.

“We don’t expect them to be psychotherapists, but they need to be able to recognize if someone needs psychotherapy” and explain what it involves, or point the employee to an EAP.

Additionally, managers should learn to regularly ask those they work with if they have any concerns, such as drawing out employees who exhibit negative behavior that hints of underlying issues.

It might be a good idea, too, to inform managerial job candidates during the hiring process that employees may seek them out for help with their problems, Toegel suggested.

“What we need to realize, first of all, is that managers are expected—expected—to listen to employees and help them cope with their negative emotions,” she said.

Good management plays a significant role “in the psychological well-being and workplace motivation of employees,” said Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University in Lancaster, England. He is co-author of the paper “Job and work attitudes, engagement and employee performance: Where does psychological well-being fit in?

In a news release for the U.K.’s Aug. 23 National Hug Your Boss Day—aimed at promoting workplace relationships and the importance of managerial styles and their effect on employee satisfaction—Cooper wondered whether many bosses deserve a hug.

Instead, “they should be doing more to psychologically ‘hug’ their employees … [and] move away from abrasive and controlling management styles and adopt more engaging and approachable ones.”

Group hug, anyone?

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

Related Article:

You Can Cry if You Want To, HR Magazine, October 2011


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