Suhsil Nifadkar, Anne Tsui and Blake Ashforth conducted their survey-based research within the IT sector in India, where growth at around 30% and high turnover means a lot of newcomers and high stakes for their rapid adjustment. Being 'new' can mean different things in different jobs, so the team consulted with HR representatives in the industry to agree on a boundary of the first three months of employment. New starters across a range of companies were contacted and those enlisted sent a survey at the end of their first month, asking about how their supervisor treated them, in terms of levels of support and amount of verbal aggression. Two weeks later respondents were asked to complete a second survey asking how they currently felt about the supervisor, both in terms of positive affect, with items like 'I feel glad to interact with my supervisor', and negative affect, such as 'I feel very tense around my supervisor'. Nifadkar and colleagues constructed their inventories based on Russell's influential circumplex model of emotion, which defines it in terms of valence (pleasant to unpleasant) and high to low arousal, and the team opted to measure positive and negative affect separately as people can experience ambivalence with 'mixed emotions' in response to experiences and individuals. They predicted that feelings towards a supervisor would be driven by how they have been treated in the past, and this was born out, with more support leading to more positive affect and more aggression to more negative affect.
But what consequences do these feelings have? The research team were driven by the approach-avoidance model of emotion, in which emotions direct us towards one of two fundamentals of behaviour: moving towards or away from a target activity or individual. In a workplace environment, they hypothesised this could take two forms: the extent to which they proactively seek supervisor feedback to better understand the workplace, and the extent to which they avoid the supervisor when possible. These were measured in a survey two weeks further into the respondents' employment, analysis of which found positive affect led to more feedback behaviours and identified a particularly strong effect of negative affect upon avoidance behaviours. The consequences of these behaviours were measured in a final survey two weeks on, looking at in-role performance, amount of helping behaviours towards colleagues, and newcomer adjustment outcomes - a combination of social adjustment, understanding of tasks and clarity on their own role. Requesting more feedback was positively associated with performance and newcomer adjustment, and actively avoiding the supervisor was associated with worse performance and fewer helping behaviours.
Organisations can invest substantially in onboarding schemes for new staff, recognising how much a bad start can cost them. As important as these are, this research suggests that the disposition of one individual - the supervisor - can be highly influential on outcomes. Supervisor behaviour triggers emotional responses, which are intended to be protective and adaptive but can lead to counterproductive behaviour, such as refraining from seeking help on a task beyond you because you were rebuked on an earlier occasion. Nifadkar and colleagues suggest that organisations could give more attention to the formative emotional experiences that their supervisors are bestowing on new staff, and even consider that the 'probation period' is really evaluating two people: the new hire and the person responsible for their early days.