The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Leadership: When the Boss Offers a Shoulder to Cry On

by Gael O’Brien

We expect good bosses to care about their employees – see them as people, ensure they understand what is required and support their professional development. At the core of expectations about good bosses is their ability to create an environment where employees can succeed.

If bosses don’t, surveys by Gallup and others regularly chronicle the resulting bad morale and lack of employee engagement which impact quality, productivity and retention.

The challenge is what happens when things get messy. Boundaries between work and home have blurred in a 24/7 digitally connected world. What, if anything, is owed when a boss offers help if personal problems or negative emotions affect an employee on the job? Does good leadership merit a quid quo pro?

It is far easier when organizations have a human resource function, manager training in areas like emotional intelligence or an Employee Assistance Program. When support resources aren’t available, bosses shoulder a heavy burden.

A recent study by IMD business school of 67 managers and employees in the headquarters of a successful recruiting agency found that most bosses saw providing emotional help as above and beyond their job responsibilities. Accordingly, they expected something back from employees they helped – things like gratitude, loyalty, or extra help on a project. However, most employees viewed such help as part of what a good boss does, so they felt no further obligation was required.

The study, covered in a recent article in the Academy of Management Journal, illustrates what happens when what is expected and recognized in good leadership isn’t clear.

As part of the study, the company's CEO said he expected that subordinates receiving emotional help from managers would have more commitment or personal loyalty: “It is human nature, isn’t it? When you do something for someone you always kind of expect to be reciprocated.” He went on to give an example: “If we go to the pub and I buy you a drink, it will sort of be expected that the next time around you buy me one. It is in every element of our culture – except in the workplace. They (direct reports) don’t see that.”

The CEO’s candor about expected reciprocity spotlights the challenges in work or personal relationships when loyalty is viewed as transactional -- deciding what you’ve done that should merit the other person owing you loyalty. That mindset creates a rip tide that capsizes trust. If a boss says “I see you are upset; I care about you and what you contribute to all of us matters,” and asks if she or he can help, being empathic may or may not arouse loyalty. Inspiring or earning loyalty is complicated. It is created or lost in a series of interactions that feed or inhibit trust.

Does this mean that caring bosses might get taken advantage of? Feel burned by direct reports they’ve invested in who then leave or don’t commit extra time to work on a project? Yes, that happens. And if it is happening all the time, there are other issues afoot that invite self-examination. Which brings us back to the study about bosses trying to manage negative emotions in the workplace.

It is interesting that the CEO, while saying in the study that negative emotions must be managed carefully, didn’t put it in managers’ job descriptions. They took on that role anyway, without training (which can lead to stress and burnout) and without recognition (which can lead to feeling unappreciated), investing in direct reports (who already think it is part of managers’ jobs) because negative emotions can hurt the company. The study findings provide the CEO with the opportunity to formalize managing negative emotions as part of mangers’ responsibilities; and by doing so clarify the support managers need to be successful.

Beyond the study, issues come up in many organizations of whether employees are grateful enough, or caring bosses are taken advantage of, or if there is a sufficient show of loyalty.

When they do, it offers a reminder to look at how leadership is showing up, how what is important (values, purpose, spirit of community) is being communicated and lived, and whether the commitment to creating an environment of success is fostering a sense of shared responsibility, inspiring everyone to do their best work.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

Post to Twitter

Related Posts:


Tagged as: , , , ,