November 4, 2014
I find it amazing that new research emerges from time to time that “discovers” that ineffective, personally conflicted, psychologically limited managers and leaders have a negative impact on their employees and the organization. This latest is a good example: A study of an international corporation finds that emotionally insecure managers avoid feedback and input from their employees.
Of course, this is no news to employees who often struggle with such managers. Or to those of us who have worked with leaders and managers whose psychological issues negatively affect their impact in the organization. Nevertheless, it’s good to see such research and surveys. They highlight the need to deal with the impact of unhealthy management in general – whether insecurity, poor communication skills, arrogance, narcissism, bullying, and/or generally creating a non-collaborative, unhealthy or destructive management culture.
The current study was reported in the Academy of Management Journal and described in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, which pointed out that organizations do better when there are clear communication channels that allow staff to point out ways the company can improve. And that teams who freely share ideas and concerns are more tight-knit and motivated. Managers then get enhanced awareness share in the praise for any improvements that pay off. So, the Research Digest explains, encouraging employee voice should be a no-brainer, especially for any manager feeling unsure of their ability to deliver solo. Yet according to new research, these insecure managers are the ones least likely to listen and act on staff input.
A summary of the study in the BPS Research Digest follows: (It) began with a survey of 41 managers and their 148 staff within a multinational oil company. Managers who rated themselves lower on managerial self-confidence (e.g. they disagreed with statements like “I am confident that I can perform effectively on many different tasks”) tended to have staff who were less likely to speak out, stating that they perceived their manager did not encourage it. Why? A follow-up experiment aimed to find out.
One hundred and thirty-one employed participants (84 women) read an imaginary scenario in which they were the manager of an airline that was receiving a rise in customer complaints. The scenario then described a meeting where the participant began announcing a solution. But before they had finished, an employee – a maintenance chief named Spencer – offered an alternative he argued was better for the airline in the long-term.
The researchers found that whether participants heeded Spencer’s advice depended on their confidence, which was manipulated at the start of the scenario. Some participants were told that they were performing impressively, others were told that people were questioning their competence. Those in the latter condition expressed lower faith in the maintenance officer’s expertise and showed less willingness to either implement his proposal or to seek help in the future from him or his colleagues.
The underlying cause appears to be the existential threat posed to low-confidence managers by these employee ideas. As people are loath to admit to such insecurities, the researchers didn’t directly measure them. Instead, they showed they could cancel the effect of low confidence by asking participants to complete a positive affirmation: a short writing exercise reminding themselves of their other positive qualities, As this intervention worked, it suggests that the root cause of managers’ ignoring staff advice was related to their own defensiveness and desire to protect their managerial status.
Accepting unsolicited feedback can be challenging for anyone. But “The Manager” is by definition on top of things, so gaps in awareness can be particularly threatening for people in that role. Self-confidence makes it easier to take that medicine, and enjoy its benefits in the long-term. But those anxious about their capability may be afraid of being unmasked, and turn away from sources of insight, at their own cost.
Here we see how the harms caused by self-doubt can spill over into a wider climate. Organisations could help new managers put aside unrealistic expectations of their need to be omniscient, and to recognise the benefits of putting the entire team brain to work. After all, better to have the Spencers of this world on your side than against you.survey of 41 managers and their 148 staff within a multinational oil company. Managers who rated themselves lower on managerial self-confidence (e.g. they disagreed with statements like “I am confident that I can perform effectively on many different tasks”) tended to have staff who were less likely to speak out, stating that they perceived their manager did not encourage it. Why? A follow-up experiment aimed to find out.