Caring for your employees isn’t enough if you want them to put more effort in

It would be fair to assume that leaders and managers who are kind, caring and compassionate would create a work environment where people want to put more effort in. Yet, that might not necessarily be the case according to research published in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies.

The American study examined whether quality of and differences in relationships between leaders and their employees could impact the amount of extra effort people put in at work.

With many organisations, particularly in the public sector, seeking to “do more with less”, the role of leaders becomes ever more critical in inspiring and motivating the people that work for them. The quality of relationships between a leader or manager and their staff is an important factor that can make a difference.

High-quality relationships tend to exhibit mutual respect, trust and loyalty. Low-quality, perfunctory relationships tend to be more mechanistic and contractual. In addition, if there are too many differences in how a leader treats their staff, which might be perceived as favouritism at one end of the spectrum through to bullying at the other, then they are more likely to see disagreement and conflict in their team. Those leaders who have similar relationships across their team are more likely to have team members who feel a sense of unity and cohesiveness.

The research

Participants all worked in the same hospital in the United States. Participants were a mix of 22 supervisors and 105 staff. Only supervisors with two or more people reporting in to them were included in the study. The majority of participants were female (86% of supervisors and 83% of employees) which the researchers controlled for in their subsequent analysis.

All participants were asked to complete questionnaires. Non-managers were asked to respond to statements about differences in relationships between leaders and staff. Supervisors were asked to respond to statements which measured their empathic concern, as well as responding to questions about performance.

The findings

Leaders who displayed empathic concern were more likely to have staff who help each other and put extra effort in to their work but only when there was little difference in relationships between the leader and each team member. In other words, those leaders who treated people broadly the same (whilst respecting them as individuals) tended to have better levels of team co-operation and individual effort.

Implications and solutions

There are some obvious limitations with this study namely that it is a small sample from one industry (healthcare) with the majority of participants being female. Therefore, how applicable it is in other contexts and work populations is up for debate. Nonetheless, the study offers leaders and managers a useful reminder for thinking more carefully about how they treat staff.

While it’s not mentioned in the study, this brings the work of John Stacy Adams and his Equity Theory. Adams’ theory suggests that people balance the amount of effort they put in to work with what they get from it. This is fed by how fairly they feel they are treated and how they think decisions are made which affect them.

Here are some things for leaders, managers and practitioners to consider:

  1. Think about how you recruit people in to leadership and management positions and in particular, the criteria you’re using to select them. Things to assess include how empathetic, fair and respectful they are.
  2. For those leaders and managers already in place, measure the quality of and differences in relationships they have with team members. This could be done through a combination of 360-degree feedback and a psychometric tool, such as Davis’ Interpersonal Reactivity Index. This can then be used to aid their development.
  3. Work with a facilitator on team development. A good facilitator will investigate what’s helping and hindering team co-operation and effort, using this information to design interventions that will help a team move forward.

Related blog posts:

Full research reference: 

Haynie, J.J., Baur, J., Harris, J.N., Harris, S.G. & Moates, K.N. (2018). When caring leaders are constrained: The impact of LMX differentiation on leader empathic concern in predicting discretionary work behaviors. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, April, 1-13.

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