BEHAVIOR
December 6, 2017

The Supervisor's Dilemma

Some bosses are approachable; others keep more of a distance. The choice can make a difference in the kind of work that gets done.

If you have to supervise others at work, you may wonder about the best way to interact with the people who call you boss. Should you project the impression that you are approachable and open to employees' input, or aim for a more authoritative remove?

The decision about whether to be humble or a little forceful has more to do with what your employees expect of you in that regard than any hard-and-fast rule about how bosses should act, a study finds. And it could affect the kind of work your team gets done.

Over 350 employees at 11 information and technology companies in China took part in the study. The employees made up 72 teams in total and answered questions about their bosses, including how humble they were. For example, participants rated how much they agreed with statements about their bosses’ receptivity to new ideas like, “Our team leader is open to the advice of others.”

When supervisors and employees shared more information with each other, the scope of the team's skills tended to expand, and the more creative they were.

Other questions were aimed at understanding how much “distance” there was between employees and their superiors, from the employees’ point of view. For example, an employee who agreed with a statement like, “When a performance appraisal made by the supervisor does not fit with subordinates' expectations, the employees should feel free to discuss it with the supervisor” would presumably feel less of a power divide between themself and the boss.

Finally, employees rated how much information they tended to share with one another, and team leaders rated how creative their employees were.

It turned out that humility could be a good quality in a boss, but only if the employees expected them to be so. In companies where there was less of a distance, or power divide, between employees and the boss, an approachable, humble supervisor was linked to more creativity among employees. When there was a greater power divide, when employees expected bosses to be superior and to hold themselves apart from workers, the same connection wasn’t seen.

Why might humility in a boss be linked to creativity in the team? It seems to have to do with how much the team members share among themselves, since this could prompt more imaginative solutions. Bosses who scored higher on humility tended to make it easier for information sharing among team members to take place, said author, Jasmine Hu. When supervisors and employees shared more information with each other, the scope of the team's skills tended to expand — the more actively the team looked for novel solutions to problems, and the more creative they were, she added.

The study took place in China, and one might wonder if the findings apply to supervisors and employees in the United States. It's likely that they do, the researchers say. Earlier evidence suggests that there are similar team leader humility levels, and employee expectations, in both countries. This would mean that basic work interactions could be fairly constant between countries, and that the results are relevant to U.S. workplaces. Additional work will need to be done to understand more about a boss’s humility and how it influences employees. The research findings do suggest that like many things related to psychological traits, the connection isn't perfectly straightforward. Humans are, after all, complicated, and so are relationships — even at the office.

“It is not as easy as saying humility is always a good or a bad thing for leaders,” says Hu. “We often ignore the contextual factors that explain the failure or success of leaders. Leadership is not just about how leaders behave, but also about their team members and what they want and expect.”

The study, carried out by researchers from The Ohio State University, Portland State University and Renmin University of China, was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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