Employees want emotional support but can managers give it?

This blog summarises major research that appeared throughout 2013 on the leader – follower relationship and appeared in the BPS Occupational Research Digest. It raises questions about the emotional expectations of workers today and the value, if any, of the transformational leader.

There was plenty of research on the give and take between leader and follower, and the ways this can fall out of balance. This can be due to a clash of expectations: for instance, managers are likely to see emotional support of those they manage as something over-and-above their normal duties. They expect their employees to reciprocate in kind, but employees just don’t see it that way. In their eyes, managers are paid to support them.

Manager expectations can be a powerful alignment tool, drawing more performance out of those judged to ‘have the stuff’ by inspiring them and painting a picture of what is possible. But a theoretical paper explains that the reason why this so-called Pygmalion effect doesn’t always hold may be because some leaders aren’t trusted enough for their followers to take a risk and make big changes.

There is no single optimal way to lead: a team’s aims and general attitude matters, as does each individual follower, in terms of how much they trust you and where they are in their organisational journey. Data that suggests both directive (perform work as I have told you to) and empowering (find your own routes to delivering outcomes) leadership styles can have performance benefits, in the appropriate contexts. Empowerment, it appears, can reap long-term rewards relative to direction, but often at the cost of immediate performance.

And transformational leadership, sometimes considered a ‘holy grail’, appears to matter more when followers are low in energy, less curious and fairly pessimistic. Employees with naturally positive mindsets don’t benefit so much from the transformational leader’s inspiration and motivational effect – because they are in a good place to begin with.

Leaders may have expectations about us, but we also have expectations about them. Demanding our leaders act accountably appears to be particularly important when the leader is an outsider – a business pro heading up a research institute, for instance. Data suggests that the necessity of justifying their actions leads them to make decisions that are more favourable to their team members. Meanwhile, we’re relatively tolerant of tentative behaviour from leaders from inside the organisation, willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Unless they are a woman, in which case we judge them for it.

And on that note….