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The Far Reach of Supportive Senior Managers

Leaders at the top have more impact on employee morale and retention than direct bosses do.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Considering the Source: The Impact of Leadership Level on Follower Motivation and Intent to Stay (Fee or subscription required)

Authors: Tessa E. Basford, Lynn R. Offermann, and Philip W. Wirtz (all the George Washington University)

Publisher: Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, vol. 19, no. 2

Date Published: May 2012

Managers at different levels of a company affect their employees’ morale and desire to stay in different ways, this paper finds. In fact, employees’ motivation and retention are more influenced by supportive executives in senior leadership positions than by a similar-minded immediate boss, confirming the trickle-down effects of visionary and compassionate leaders and the immense value of CEOs who have star power.

Supportive managers can be beneficial to an organization on a number of fronts, prior research has shown. These leaders can increase employees’ satisfaction and willingness to do extra work, while decreasing turnover and the costs of hiring and training new workers.

But researchers have tended to lump all levels of leadership together, or to examine only top-line management or employee–supervisor pairs, paying little empirical attention to the influence of leadership on different rungs of the organizational ladder. This paper, the authors write, is the first to examine the impact of leadership support from two distinct levels — immediate supervisors and executives in senior management.

For example, an employee might have a good working relationship with her immediate boss but dislike the maternity leave protocols put in place by senior management. Likewise, a worker might appreciate top-level leaders for their promotion of diversity but be discouraged by a direct supervisor’s lack of empathy or positive feedback.

To untangle the effects of leadership at two distinct levels, the authors collected survey data from nearly 70,000 employees at 677 locations of a large U.S. company in the service industry, among workers ranging in age from 16 to 78. After a thorough literature review, with input from industrial and organizational psychologists and validation from subject matter experts, the authors developed a questionnaire to measure employees’ intent to stay at the company, their motivation at work, and their perceptions of the support they received from immediate and top-level managers.

The authors’ analysis showed that leaders at the two levels independently affected employees’ attitudes, meaning that “when one leadership level is not sufficiently supportive, support from another leadership level may help motivate an employee to perform well and ultimately to stay at an organization.”

But the two sources of support had varying levels of impact, the data also showed. Senior leaders had a much greater influence on both employees’ motivation and their willingness to stay than did immediate supervisors.

There could be several reasons for senior leaders to hold more sway over employees’ attitudes, the authors write. Although they don’t have day-to-day interaction with individual workers, top managers can enact policies or programs that help or hinder everyone in the organization. Furthermore, research has shown that employees tend to personify their company, viewing it as either kind and caring or dispassionate and unsupportive, and high-status leaders may be perceived as more representative of their organization overall than lower-level bosses.

“Thus, even though senior leaders are often removed from direct, daily contact with much of their workforce,” the authors write, “those that are visible and communicate their presence through image and policy may still have a significant impact on their followers’ perceptions.”

In addition, even if workers have unsupportive direct bosses, when they feel valued by senior leadership, they may believe they have options for addressing their concerns besides quitting. For example, employees might air their grievances to more senior leaders, ask to be reassigned to another supervisor, or try for promotions that put some distance between themselves and their unsupportive bosses. In contrast, employees who feel low levels of support from the most senior levels might feel stuck, or fail to speak up for fear of retaliation.

Because of the disproportionate influence of senior leaders, support from the highest levels of the company hierarchy should be clearly reflected in organizational policies and initiatives, the authors say. “Although enhancing the support offered by leaders at all levels is important, companies wishing to promote employee motivation and retention may need to devote special attention to leaders at senior management levels,” the authors write. “Developing strategies to ensure that senior leaders demonstrate support and stressing that it must be effectively communicated from the top down may be especially important in increasing valued follower behaviors.”

This finding should be welcomed by companies, the authors write, because developing a supportive upper-echelon leadership culture is often easier, given the relatively small number of senior managers, than ensuring that all supervisors receive training. Also, if the highest-level managers at a firm show more support, that behavior may naturally spill over to lower-level supervisors, who often model their actions on those at the top.

Regardless, because support from different levels of management was shown to have independent positive effects on employees, companies should tailor training and resources to help both levels of leaders engage with their subordinates, the authors write, and not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. “Leadership is not inherently monolithic,” they conclude, “and examining it by levels can be more helpful in providing evidence for which behaviors will, in the end, lead to greater leadership success.”

Bottom Line:
Supportive leaders at various levels of a company have independent and significant effects on their employees’ motivation and their desire to stay at the firm. A helpful attitude from top-level management, however, has more influence on employee morale, suggesting that workers who are in conflict with their immediate bosses still feel they can work out their problems if the overarching culture is supportive.

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