According to a study by IMD business school, most managers believe offering emotional support will benefit their company.
Yet most employees simply view such shows of kindness as part of their superiors’ duties and have no intention of working any harder by way of saying thank-you.
As a result, bosses who lend a helping hand must manage their own expectations, as they may find themselves frustrated with their staff’s lack of appreciation.
Research co-author Professor Ginka Toegel 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 findings emerged from an in-depth study of workers at a successful recruiting agency that specializes in providing managers for the service sector.
Dozens of employees took part in interviews and questionnaires to examine whom they turned to for emotional help and how they felt such support should be viewed.
Around three quarters of lower-level workers and middle managers reported receiving support from their superiors – but not one expressed a feeling of personal debt.
One manager told how he devoted considerable time and energy to helping an employee deal with problems outside work – only for her to resign when she felt better.
He said: “When she was turning the corner she said: ‘I’m leaving.’ I said: ‘I’m happy for you, but I feel a bit let down.’ She said: ‘Oh, I didn’t think about that.’”
Another complained: “If I buy you a drink it’s sort of expected that the next time around you’ll buy me one. It’s in every element of our culture – except the workplace.”
Professor Anand Narasimhan, also of IMD, said: “Some managers expressed social motives for offering support – ‘Christian spirit’, for example, or ‘the right thing to do’.”
“But even they expected they would gain something in return, perhaps in the form of increased recognition from those they helped and from their own superiors.”
“Others expected purely practical gains, taking the view that helping to address employees’ negative emotions would ultimately benefit sales and profits.”
“Based on our findings, maybe the lesson for all concerned is to avoid unrealistic expectations – especially in an era when so much of economic life is built on services.”
“The fact is that managers do benefit from a happy team in terms of productivity and results, even without any additional displays of loyalty and commitment.”
“Some manifestation of gratitude beyond that would be very nice, of course, but there’s no reason for bitterness or hand-wringing if it doesn’t happen to materialize.”
The study, which was carried out in collaboration with University College London, is published in the latest issue of the Academy of Management Journal.
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