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Jamie Lawrence


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Workers ‘take caring bosses for granted’


Empathetic bosses who go out of their way to help employees with personal and work problems are being taken for granted, according to new research from IMD business school.

The study found that employees tend to view these acts of kindness as part of the manager’s duties and do not plan to put in extra work to ‘say thank you’ for the good deeds.

Despite this, most managers believe that offering emotional support to employees will yield business benefit for the organisation. Mismanaged expectations on this can lead to frustration as managers do not get the response they expect.

These findings emerge from an in-depth study of workers as a recruiting agency which specialises in providing managers to the service sector. The study interviewed and questioned employees to see who they went to when they needed emotional help.

Three-quarters of lower-level workers and middle managers reported receiving support from superiors, but not one expressed a feeling of personal debt.

One manager said he devoted considerable time to helping an employee deal with personal problems – once she felt better she resigned.

Because a lack of perceived emotional support can so easily derail commitment and motivation and slice away at the health of the psychological contract, it’s important for employees to feel they have access to the emotional support they need. But at the same time, giving emotional support and receiving nothing back can be exhausting.

Managing expectations around both sides on emotional support is a key task for HR, but it’s far from an easy one.

Professor Ginka Toegel, co-author of the research, said: “Managers and employees alike appreciate that controlling negative emotions can be important within an organization. But it seems there’s a marked difference in how the two parties believe this sort of support should be perceived and how they think employees should respond to it.”

“Managers tend to regard emotional support as above and beyond their responsibilities and therefore worthy of reciprocation in the form of greater commitment. For example, they might think an employee they have helped should have no qualms about working a little bit harder or staying a little bit later to meet a deadline.”

“Unfortunately, employees just don’t see it like that. They view emotional support as part and parcel of what their superiors do and are paid good money for. Consequently, the shows of gratitude may never arrive – and the negativity can end up perpetuated not by the employee but by the manager, who feels terribly let down.”

The study, which was carried out in collaboration with University College London, has been published in the latest issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

2 Responses

  1. Do you line manage?

    For those who directly line manage, I'd be very interested to hear your personal experience of this. Have employees responded positively to obvious displays of support and caring?

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence

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