Researchers Ginka Toegel, Martin Kilduff and N Anand drew their data through interviews and network analysis of staff at a recruitment agency. The network analysis asked the 67 employees to detail who they relied on when experiencing negative emotions. Those lower in the company hierarchy tended to turn to more senior colleagues for emotional support when stressed, angry or fatigued. There was little traffic in the other direction, as senior staff typically sought support from peers rather than subordinates. (We've covered leadership responses to challenges here.)
Interview data suggested that as well as responding to direct requests for support, managers often actively scanned their environment for brewing issues, and engaged with subordinates to offer venues to discuss emotional issues. And the ways in which managers helped ranged from simple listen-and-advice to more involved interventions, such as reframing and transforming the employees perspective.
What are the managerial motivations that lie behind such patterns of helping behaviour? Some managers expressed a fairly-hard nosed attitude: 'I don’t want that people leave, or I don’t want them to be really low or down at work, because this will have negative impact on me.' These individuals expected their efforts to pay back in terms of renewed commitment to the team. Other managers were more pro-social, acting because they are interested in people and concerned for their feelings. Still, they also expected reciprocity in terms of warmth and appreciation for their efforts. As one manager expressed, 'what I am doing [by way of emotion help] is over and above my responsibilities as a manager', and this view emerged as a consistent theme across the 14 managers interviewed: emotional support is an extra-role activity.
But employees saw things differently. 'If it is a work-related emotional problem, then it is my manager’s job to support me.' From their perspective, emotional support is simply a feature of the managers job, and saw little or no obligation to reciprocate. Employees did sometimes perceive that a manager was doing an excellent job in emotional support and consequently saw them as exceptional leaders, attributing them experience, wisdom and even referring to them as father- and mother-figures. The authors speculate whether putting the manager into such roles is a way to remove the need to actively reciprocate, just as children are rarely expected to match the efforts of their parents. While this can be flattering to a manager, the lack of a quid pro quo led to some managers feeling 'let down and disappointed', such as when an employee supported through a difficult episode went on to abruptly quit the company for a better position.
Neither the employee nor manager is wrong, but this study suggests that they can commonly be on different pages with regard to the role of emotional support. Being a 'toxin handler' of other people's negative emotions can be challenging and have knock-on effects for those who intervene. The authors conclude that 'our model suggests the paradox that helping behavior designed to ameliorate negative emotions may itself generate negative emotions on the part of managers waiting in vain for employees to repay their kindness with personal loyalty.'
Elfenbein, H. A. 2007. Emotion in organizations. In J. P. Walsh & A. P. Brief (Eds.), Academy of Management annals, vol. 1: 315–386. New York: Erlbaum.