Category: leadership

What makes our work meaningful? Do bosses really make it meaningless?

The media has used the findings to demonise bosses, but such coverage forgets an important point, writes Alex Fradera

There have been times in my life where work seemed pretty pointless, on occasion because the position was a prime example of what anthropologist David Graeber calls bullshit jobs – those that give no real value back to oneself or society. But I’ve more frequently experienced the sense that a job was at some times meaningless, and at others very worthwhile. That’s a theme picked up in Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden’s new study published in MIT Sloan Management Review, where interviews with 135 people within 10 different occupations explored times when work was meaningful or meaningless.

Like myself, interviewees didn’t consider meaningfulness as a fixed property of their job. They described it arising in episodes, highly intense and memorable peaks separated by unremarkable lulls. Some cases exemplified what the work was all about, such as an academic giving what they knew to be a superb lecture, whereas others were quite outside the norm, such as a shop assistant tending to a critically ill customer.

Often, these episodes had a personal flavour, such as the participant who recalled the first music recital attended by her parents. Many involved recognising the impact their work had had on people besides themselves, whether their students’ graduation or when their engineering innovation had been translated into products used by others. These personal and transcendent aspects were easily fused, such as in the example given by a refuse collector, where, during a crisis triggered by contamination of the local water supply, he visited one neighbour after another providing clean water.

It’s tempting to assume valuable work experiences should be positive – euphoric, air-punching highs – but the interviews teemed with examples that were heavy and challenging. Nurses described end-of-life situations; lawyers, toiling through a heavy, hard case; workers, pushing together against a seemingly intractable problem. Bailey and Madden suggest that organisations and researchers both may be neglecting such poignant experiences, which don’t tally with a superficial account of positive psychology, but may be very important in making work meaningful.

Times that meant something often involved contact with family and friends, peers and particularly the people served by the job. In contrast, managers were mentioned in accounts of meaningless work: times when the interviewee felt treated unfairly, disempowered or taken for granted, or when managerial priorities separated from important relationships with peers, or disconnected them from the values that mattered most to them, such as when the bottom line was placed over the quality of work. It’s for this reason that Bailey and Madden concluded that managerial meddling is often to blame when our work feels meaningless – a claim that has attracted boss-bashing headlines in the mainstream media, such as MoneyWeb’s Bosses destroy meaningful work.

But this media coverage, while fun, forgets an important point – in all but the most dysfunctional organisations, managers have a role in determining the conditions around work, which means – as Bailey and Madden themselves note – that a deft manager can be of benefit.

How does the work have a bigger meaning; for example, how does recycled waste actually lead to the creation of new objects? How can people devoted to their work get opportunities to interact with each other, and with the people their work benefits? How can the difficult times at work – like the eventual loss of a resident at your hospice – be met with appropriate support, but also recognised as valuable? And how can grey tasks like filling out forms be reduced, or at the least, be joined up with the important stuff? Should management solve such problems, they’d fade into the background, and in all likelihood, stay unsung in interviews about meaningful work. But that won’t mean that their efforts didn’t matter, and hopefully they can take pride – and meaning – in that.

What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Puncturing the myth of the tireless leader – if you’re sleep deprived you’re unlikely to inspire anyone

Sleep deprivation makes it harder for us to inspire others, or to be inspired

There’s an archetype of the tireless leader who scorns slumber in favour of getting things done – Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, to name a few. But if you think you’re going to inspire anybody by routinely working through the night, you might want to think again. Research published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that sleep deprivation has the specific effect of making it harder for us to charismatically inspire others. And in a double whammy, the research suggests that followers who are sleep deprived are likely to find it particularly difficult to be inspired by their leaders.

Christopher Barnes and his colleagues asked 88 business students to prepare a commencement speech (a talk meant to inspire students at their graduating ceremony), and then to deliver it in front of a video camera. Half of the participants made the speech in a state of sleep deprivation (the previous night they’d had to complete a survey every hour between 10pm and 5am), the others were fully rested.

Afterwards the students answered questions about their own performance, including their ability to engage in “deep acting” – regulating their emotions by reaching inward and trying to genuinely experience these emotions. Also, a team of judges watched the videos of the speeches and rated the students’ performances for charisma. The judges didn’t know who the students were, nor whether they were in the sleep deprived condition or not, but nonetheless they consistently rated the tired orators as less charismatic.

This result was just as Barnes and his team predicted because previous research has shown that sleep deprivation makes it harder to control our emotional displays, and that one component of charismatic behaviour is being able to embody gravity, enthusiasm, or righteousness as the situation demands. Bearing this out, sleep-deprived participants considered themselves less able during the speech to engage in deep acting. And the worse they felt they were at deep acting, the less charismatic the speech.

A second experiment turned the tables to see how observers deal with charismatic content when they are tired. The researchers cherry picked some of the more charismatic or uninspiring videos from the first experiment, and then asked 109 student participants to watch them back and rate each for their charismatic effect. Half of these participants were sleep deprived and they felt less charismatically impressed by what they heard. As this can’t be related to their own deep acting skills, what was going on? Again, the answer is emotion: the tired participants felt less positive, and this lower mood explained the degree to which sleep deprivation affected their ratings. This is because in searching for an external explanation for our feelings, we are liable to misjudge the source – in this case the students blamed their feeling flat from tiredness on the fact the orators weren’t that charismatic.

The tireless leader trope may not come out of nowhere: there is evidence for a gene that provides resistance to sleep deprivation, and the will to persevere during certain crises may temporarily outweigh the costs. But the costs – summarised here – can be substantial, including attention deficits, poorer decision making and risk evaluation, and memory lapses. Now we can add charismatic influence to that list. Moreover, role-modelling long hours risks propagating these habits to the rest of the organisation – so even leaders who have the rare ability to shake off their own tiredness will be presiding over cognitively impaired, irritable followers in no mood for their pronouncements. Forty winks are a wise investment indeed.


Barnes, C., Guarana, C., Nauman, S., & Kong, D. (2016). Too Tired to Inspire or Be Inspired: Sleep Deprivation and Charismatic Leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000123

–further reading–
Students: it’s time to ditch the pre-exam all-nighter
An afternoon nap tunes out negative emotions, tunes in positive ones

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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The most effective leaders clash with their company’s culture

Anyone will tell you that the most successful organisations have leaders who match the company culture. A CEO fixated on getting things done should lead somewhere driven by outcomes, a “mission culture”, whereas a people-focused leader suits a place focused on involvement and participation. This way everything is neat, tidy and aligned, with messages presented consistently, providing staff with reliable guides as to how to behave. But this is not what the data says in a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The new results argue that your leader shouldn’t line up with the culture – they should supply what it’s missing.

Chad Hartnell and his colleagues surveyed the management of firms within a technology consortium, asking members of 120 management teams to rate their CEOs on task leadership (e.g. “encourages the use of uniform policies”) and relational leadership (“is friendly and approachable”), and to rate their organisation’s culture on these same task and relation dimensions. The researchers wanted to find out which combinations of leadership and culture would, nine months later, show the greatest benefit in a tangible outcome: firm finances.

The data drew a gloomy picture for alignment. For relationship focus, mismatches were always better. Firms with a strong relational culture performed better when led by a leader with a low relational focus, and highly relational leaders were associated with stronger results when they operated in a culture with lower concern with relations. A similar picture emerged for task focus, where a combination of a high-focus culture and leader was the worst one possible. These associations held true even after controlling for past performance, CEO tenure and size of the firm.

Why could this be? When leader and culture are aligned, much of the leader’s efforts are redundant. When an organisation’s history of competition and high standards leads to a highly outcome focused culture, the CEO generates limited returns from focusing on task outcomes, as culture is acting as a “substitute for leadership”. The job of a leader is to bring something new and needed to the table, such as a relational focus in a highly clinical culture.

Hartnell’s team point out their finding operates at a very broad level – more or less focus on people or outcomes – and that this shouldn’t be taken as querying whether leaders can ever be a misfit for a culture; clearly they can. So this study isn’t a paean to appointing disruptive contrarians, but rather, to considering the broader picture of what an organisation needs at any given time. Leaders who’ve been successful in steering their ship should reflect on whether the lessons they came to teach have now been learned, and whether it’s time to shift who they are as a leader, so they can begin to offer new ones.


Hartnell, C., Kinicki, A., Schurer Lambert, L., Fugate, M., & Doyle Corner, P. (2016). Do Similarities or Differences Between CEO Leadership and Organizational Culture Have a More Positive Effect on Firm Performance? A Test of Competing Predictions. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000083

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Why narcissistic leaders are like chocolate cake

By Christian Jarrett

At a superficial level, people who are narcissistic seem like they will be good leaders. They’re confident, outgoing and unafraid of putting themselves forward. But once in charge, their appeal rapidly wanes. In this way, say the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Personality, they are rather like chocolate cake:

“The first bite of chocolate cake is usually rich in flavor and texture, and extremely gratifying. After a while, however, the richness of this flavor makes one feel increasingly nauseous. Being led by a narcissist could be a similar experience.”

Supporting their chocolate cake model, the researchers recruited 142 unacquainted students to take part in weekly group tasks. Through the course of the study, the students rated each others’ leadership skills. High scorers in narcissism attracted positive leadership ratings from their peers early on, but this positive impression faded. The deteriorating perception of narcissists over time was partly explained by their lack of so-called “transformational leadership skills” becoming apparent – that is, their inability to motivate and inspire others. A second study was similar but involved students who already knew each other. In this case, the narcissists did not receive positive leadership ratings from the outset – there was no honeymoon period for them – and as the study went on, they received more negative ratings from their peers.

“Taken together, the findings of the two studies are consistent with the chocolate cake model and demonstrate that initial positive peer perceptions of narcissistic leadership fade over time, and eventually become negative,” the researchers said.

The Leader Ship Is Sinking: A Temporal Investigation of Narcissistic Leadership


Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) is editor of BPS Research Digest

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Leaders smile in a way that says they’re feeling the emotions their followers crave

Trump’s grin may reflect the American
aspiration for high excitement

Deep into these highly-charged US presidential primaries, I’m taken by the colourful – sometimes cartoonish – diversity of personas on display. But despite their political and personality differences, new research in the journal Emotion suggests that if these American leadership aspirants are like other US leaders, they are all likely to have at least one thing in common – the way they smile will be coloured by the “ideal affect” of their culture: the high excitement of the American Way.

A large multinational research team led by Jeanne L. Tsai, pored over reams of photographs of leaders, and employed Paul Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to analyse their facial expressions. The researchers were smile-hunting, and they were specifically interested in two variants: calm smiles, which involve a wrinkling of the eyes and a widening of the mouth, and excited smiles, which involve extra muscle action to part the lips and open the jaw. They hypothesised that leaders of nations that prize high arousal positive emotions – as the US has been shown to do – should be keen to demonstrate these through excited smiles. Meanwhile, calm smiles should be preferred by Chinese and other cultures that consider lower arousal emotions to be more desirable. In short, they wanted to test the idea that political leaders manifest the feelings that voters aspire to experience themselves.

The researchers began by looking at close to 500 official, posed photographs of US and Chinese leaders, from government, business and university positions. No significant cultural differences were found for calm smile rates, but this is likely because the Chinese leaders overwhelmingly preferred serious expressions to smiles, and calm smiles were rare in both cultures. In contrast, American leaders not only smiled more often, but they showed an abundance of excited smiling – overall, there were six times as many of these smiles in the US photos compared with the Chinese.

But this finding might have nothing to do with people’s aspirations. Maybe Americans, including American leaders, are simply more excitable than the Chinese and people from other cultures. To investigate further, the researchers gathered data on a wider range of countries – more Eastern ones including Japan and South Korea, and more Western ones including Germany, the UK and also Mexico. They analysed thousands of photos of leaders drawn from these countries’ respective legislative assemblies, and they asked roughly 150 students per nation to rate emotion words such as “euphoric” and “quiet” in terms of how typical and ideal these feelings are in their culture. In addition, the researchers looked at differences between the countries in terms of their development, wealth and democracy.

Tsai and his colleagues found that nations that idealise high-energy positive emotions were more likely to have excited smiling leaders, even after controlling statistically for the influence of other national differences, including wealth or the typical levels of high arousal experienced in each country. A similar pattern held for calm smiles, which turned out to be most frequent in France and Germany where low arousal positive emotions are the most idealised.

These new findings are consistent with past research that’s shown differences in national culture manifest more strongly in the emotions that people consider ideal, rather than in the emotional states which make up our lives – our actual emotional experiences are more heavily coloured by our individual dispositions and by human commonalities.

Trump, Clinton, Sanders and Rubio may be tight-lipped and statesmanlike at times, but look out for that bared-teeth grin emanating from their official feeds and photo-shoots. Not because it reflects how these would-be leaders feel. But because it’s a signal of the emotion that the American people crave.


Tsai, J., Ang, J., Blevins, E., Goernandt, J., Fung, H., Jiang, D., Elliott, J., Kölzer, A., Uchida, Y., Lee, Y., Lin, Y., Zhang, X., Govindama, Y., & Haddouk, L. (2016). Leaders’ smiles reflect cultural differences in ideal affect. Emotion, 16 (2), 183-195 DOI: 10.1037/emo0000133

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Teams are more creative when their leader is confident in her or his own creativity

If you’re wondering who to appoint to run a team with creative goals, you might favour a non-creative, reasoning that it’s down to the team members to generate creativity, with the person at the top acting more as driver and dogged coordinator. However, new research in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes suggests that teams produce more creative outcomes when their managers have greater confidence in their own creativity.

Lei Huang of Auburn University and his collaborators surveyed 106 team leaders in a large tech company based in the US, canvassing their creative self-efficacy (CSE): their belief in their own ability to complete creative goals, as measured through survey items like “I have confidence in my ability to solve problems creatively.”

The researchers also surveyed team members, 544 in all, who had spent an average of four years in the company. They said they were more willing to focus on creative activities – “I spend considerable time sifting through information that helps to generate new ideas” – when they were led by an individual who had scored higher in CSE; they also rated high CSE leaders as being more encouraging of creativity. These effects were amplified when team members felt they had better relationships with their manager. Did team members with creatively confident leaders actually deliver more creative work? Yes, at least according to the team leaders: those who scored higher on CSE were more likely to report that their teams were a “good source of creative ideas”.

To sum up, modelling of the data showed that creatively confident leaders had teams more invested in creative activities, that saw the leadership as encouraging creativity (all the more when relationships were strong), and that produced more creative work overall. Now, you could imagine the opposite to be the case: that creative leaders pursue their own creative ideas to the cost of supporting their followers, and are reluctant to view what their followers produce as creative, due to their own higher bar for what counts as such. No doubt such cases exist. But this study suggests that in normal functioning leadership contexts, managers recognise that the route for delivering the kind of work they care about is through their followers, so if they want creative results, they have to facilitate it, not produce it personally. In addition, people higher in CSE are known to be less conformist and receptive to ideas; they get creative behaviours.

One weakness of this study is that the measure of team creative performance was subjective, and moreover, rated by the leaders themselves. It could be that creative-minded leaders are more ready to see the creativity in team members. So Huang’s team recommend future work with objective ratings or via ratings by other coworkers.

Creative self-efficacy is likely not the only trait that disposes leaders to encourage creativity, but it is one of the few so far explicitly identified by research. And the good news is self-efficacy can be developed. So organisations may want to look at how to foster their leaders’ confidence in their own creative skills: this will boost their motivation to generate new approaches, and help them recognise that the risks and occasional failures along the way are worthwhile.


Huang, L., Krasikova, D., & Liu, D. (2016). I can do it, so can you: The role of leader creative self-efficacy in facilitating follower creativity Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 132, 49-62 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2015.12.002

further reading
Mixing your teams up is key to group creativity
Why it’s so important that team members believe they’re on the same page
Jokey team meetings are more productive, as long as people laugh along
Reverse psychology: How bad managers inspire team camaraderie

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Self-doubting bosses prefer to delegate to self-doubting staff

It’s possible to earn great success in your professional career, rise to great heights, but all the while experience the “imposter phenomenon“: the sense that your position is undeserved, your unmasking possible at any time. For people like this, who doubt their own abilities, it would seem wise to rely on others who are confident they can get things done. But new research published in Personality and Individual Differences suggests the opposite: the more prone managers are to that imposter feeling, the more they choose to delegate tasks to those who also feel unworthy.

Myriam Bechtoldt of the Frankfurt School of Management recruited 190 managers – all highly educated – and had them complete online surveys that measured their identification with imposterism, including feeling like a fake, attributing one’s current position to luck, and feeling unworthy of praise for past successes.

Following this, the managers had to decide how to delegate six work activities, half of which were routine, such as compiling a mailing list or organising an outing, while the remainder were more challenging, such as making an important presentation or developing a mission statement.

The four junior candidates available to complete these delegated tasks were described in short profiles, which presented them all as similar: all highly competent, all qualified, all hungry to prove themselves. They differed only in gender, and the fact that one male and female candidate were described as self-confident, whereas the other two were described as secretly doubting their abilities.

The results were clear: the higher a manager scored on feelings of imposterism, the more they preferred to delegate to another self-doubter, and this was true for tasks of all stripes.

Why did this happen? Bechtoldt believes it a simple matter of self-image. In the self-doubting candidates, imposter participants see some part of themselves, and prefer to rely on someone with a similar mindset – even though self-confident people are on average a surer bet, being more ambitious about outcomes and persevering more through problems.

It may also be that the participants feel the urge to give their counterparts a leg up the ladder, perhaps treating them as a proxy for their own journey, and trying to convince themselves that a self-doubting profile can still reliably succeed. I should note that Bechtoldt doesn’t see such a strategic motive at work, arguing that explanation would account only for delegation of the high impact activities, not the menial ones that were unlikely to raise anyone’s profile. Further study will tell.

Is this result good news or bad for a typical organisation? The fact that low-confident, high ability workers will be given a chance to prove themselves by like-minded superiors could be a source of relief – although if such people are favoured to take on duties of every sort, this could turn out to be a source of stress for them. More broadly, the result is another example of organisational cloning, where leaders look to stack their ranks with those who most resemble them, even though a degree of diversity – here, a mix of those who self-doubt and those who are self-sure – is what helps organisations flourish.


Bechtoldt, M. (2015). Wanted: Self-doubting employees—Managers scoring positively on impostorism favor insecure employees in task delegation Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 482-486 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.07.002

further reading
Feeling like a fraud: The psychology of the impostor phenomenon

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Reverse psychology: How bad managers inspire team camaraderie

An unfair, uncaring manager makes for an uncertain working life, one characterised by stress, absenteeism and poor performance. But new research suggests a silver lining: when the boss is unjust, team members come together.

A multi-institution collaboration led by Adam Stoverink presented teams of students with an awkward event. The students thought they’d been recruited to solve tasks for a cash prize, but they were left twiddling their thumbs while waiting for an assigned supervisor to show up. When he eventually did, he gave a sincere apology to half of the groups, but the rest were fobbed off with a shrug, as he explained, “clearly my time is more important than yours.” Post-experiment, participants who were fobbed off rated their supervisor poorly, but also expressed feeling closer to their team-mates.

The evidence suggests the participants were seeking to relieve cognitive dissonance, the discomfort caused by an ambiguous situation that doesn’t line up with their beliefs. One way to do this is to seek solidarity with others in the same position. This was characterised as “misery doesn’t just love any kind of company, it loves only miserable company” by eminent social psychologist Stanley Schachter on the back of his classic experiment, where people who had volunteered for an electric shock of unknown severity unanimously chose to wait in a room with others sharing their fate, rather than people who didn’t. In the current study, ambiguity was provoked through injustice (who doesn’t believe that they deserve to be treated justly?), in the form of a leader who didn’t appear to have his team’s interests at heart. As predicted, the greater the participants’ unease, the closer they felt to others in the same boat.

Bad situations can generate perverse benefits: in this case, solidarity amongst mistreated people. I can certainly recall times where I stuck with my team-mates in spite of the boss we had, not because of her. But this is still a silver lining on a dark cloud: in this paper alone, a follow-up study reports that teams with a rude supervisor squandered more of their precious remaining time trying to make sense of the supervisor’s rudeness, instead of progressing on the tasks. More broadly, such employees would be beset by rumination, doubting and second-guessing motivations, to say nothing of the effects of specific acts of injustice against them. And of course, some unjust leaders, whether by design or through incompetence, end up playing team members against one another, thereby counteracting the camaraderie effects reported here.

The lesson for organisations is not to assume that a cohesive team is a credit to their leader; sometimes the opposite is the case.


Stoverink, A., Umphress, E., Gardner, R., & Miner, K. (2014). Misery loves company: Team dissonance and the influence of supervisor-focused interpersonal justice climate on team cohesiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99 (6), 1059-1073 DOI: 10.1037/a0037915

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Cheating bosses stain the reputation of their organisations and their junior staff

Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling (left) and his attorney leave the courthouse in 2006

When high-ranking members of an organisation break the rules, it’s not just their own reputation on the line. New research from Stanford University shows that the stain of transgression sends its fingers out to every organisational member.

In a series of online studies, Takuya Sawaoka and Benoît Monin presented participants with information about a hypothetical company employee involved in unethical activity such as deceptive marketing. When the culprit’s position in the company was senior rather than low-ranking, participants were more likely to see his behaviour as representative and go on to make assumptions about other dodgy company practices.

It’s probably not hard for people to believe that ripping off clients is a company-wide policy, especially if they hear that their boss is doing it. But what about less likely policies that directly harm the company? In fact, when bosses were presented as rigging performance data to maximise their bonuses, participants continued to suspect the wider organisation – and not just in a linear, cause-and-effect fashion. A bonus-fiddling boss made people suspicious of mid-ranker’s motives for giving investment advice that turned out to be poor. The assessment seems a more fundamental one: people assume a dishonest leader means a dishonest organisation.

The effect generalises from these more corporate contexts, with a 300-participant experiment replicating it in situations such as medical ethics and fabrication of scientific data. Sawaoka and Monin also show that where participants bristle at employees working under the corrupt, they are also willing to bite, being less prepared to give a work referral to a hypothetical employee exiting such a company to seek work elsewhere.

Although leaders are often prototypical of a group and can shape organisational culture – meaning that bad leaders may truly cast a shadow beyond themselves – we can see how this judgment can become unforgiving. Think of the thousands of employees at Enron, only a fraction of whom were involved in fraud, but forever coloured by that high-profile exposé. Or closer to home, the high-profile cases of fraud or irregularity in psychology labs, and the challenges that may face junior, innocent researchers as a consequence of their association.

Yet the reality is lower-ranking employees have less influence and knowledge about what is really going on, and may not have a lot of choice about where to work in the first place. If we see a spoiled apple at the top of the barrel, we’re tempted to draw conclusions, but we should instead continue to apply judgment and consider people on their actions, rather than on the associations about which they may have limited control.


Sawaoka, T., & Monin, B. (2014). Moral Suspicion Trickles Down Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550614555027

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

What I don’t hear can’t hurt me: insecure managers avoid input from employees

Organisations do better when there are clear communication channels that allow staff to point out ways the company can improve. Similarly, teams who freely share ideas and concerns are more tight-knit and motivated. And their managers get enhanced awareness, and to share in the praise for any improvements that pay off. So 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.

Nathanael Fast and colleagues 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.


Fast, N., Burris, E., & Bartel, C. (2014). Managing to Stay in the Dark: Managerial Self-Efficacy, Ego Defensiveness, and the Aversion to Employee Voice Academy of Management Journal, 57 (4), 1013-1034 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2012.0393

–further reading–
Self doubt turns bosses into bullies

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.