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15 Aug 2013 Back

Employee Engagement Requires More Than Caring Bosses

RESEARCH: A study from IMD shows there is more to ‘employee engagement’ than being a caring boss. In fact bosses with unrealistic expectations may well become disillusioned and thus engender negative reactions from their team.

The Engage for Success task force report ‘The Evidence’ set the scene in 2012. “We hope the sheer weight of this evidence will convince even the most hardened sceptic that employee engagement is not soft and fluffy, but a bottom line issue, impacting on the profitability or on service outcomes. In other words it is a must-do, not a nice-to-have” say founders David McCleod and Nita Clarke in their introduction.

This new IMD business school research in no way counters this, but merely emphasises that there is no easy superficial way to attain true employee engagement.

The researchers found that most managers believe offering emotional support to employees will benefit their organization; but that caring bosses who help employees with their personal and work problems should not expect gratitude and commitment in return, and to do so can cause disappointment and negativity.

Most employees simply view shows of kindness as part of their managers’ duties and have no intention of working any harder by way of saying thank-you.

Research co-author Professor Ginka Toegel observes that: “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 dozens of workers at a successful recruitment agency that specializes in providing managers for the service sector. Around three quarters of junior workers and middle managers reported receiving support from their superiors – but not one expressed a feeling of personal debt.

One manager spoke about devoting considerable time to helping an employee deal with problems outside work – only for her to resign when she felt better: “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.”

IMD Professor Anand Narasimhan, adds: “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.”

IMD and other leading business schools today are focused on developing a leadership model fit for the future; one that discards the traditional command and control model and asks leaders to engage employees by creating a narrative they can believe in and commit to, celebrating diversity, and connecting with modern lives. Caring is an important ingredient but only as a part of a much richer mix.  

Photo: Peter Sellers and Sterling Hayden in Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, 1964, directed by Stanley Kubrick, Columbia Pictures.

Further Information

Executive Education at IMD

Read the Engage for Success report ‘The Evidence’

Learn about Engage for Success 


About Professor Ginka Toegel

About Professor Anand Narasimhan

The full 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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