Skip to contentSkip to navigation

The Buzzkill Boss

The joys and struggles that leaders experience at home have a major impact on their attitudes at work, as well as on their subordinates’ moods and performance.

Bottom LineThe joys and struggles that leaders experience at home have a major impact on their attitudes at work, as well as on their subordinates’ moods and performance. 

In our 24/7, hyperconnected world, the dividing line between work and family life continues to blur. Because news from the office or the babysitter is only a smartphone swipe away, keeping those two worlds separate and distinct has become quite challenging, if not futile. The emotions that employees bring to the office from their personal lives have been shown to have a dramatic effect on professional performance. After all, it’s only natural that your attitude, energy level, and engagement at work will be affected by whether you spent the night nursing your child’s flu or enjoyed a relaxing weekend at the family cabin.

Stress from conflicts at home can manifest itself in several negative ways at the office—worrying about off-the-job issues can drain employees of their energy and focus, causing them to withdraw from colleagues. On the other hand, employees’ lives are enriched when home life helps alleviate work stress—when a spouse offers much-needed support and perspective, for example. That ballast can help employees roll into the office on an even keel and in a buoyant mood.

But there is a more subtle aspect to the issue that researchers have so far failed to examine. That is, do supervisors’ feelings of work–life conflict or fulfillment spill over to their subordinates? Those higher in the organization chart are charged with inspiring and motivating their employees. So does the body language and general demeanor of mopey managers and upbeat bosses spread? According to a new study, managers can indeed transmit their attitudes of burnout or invigoration to subordinates—albeit not necessarily in the ways you might expect.

The study’s authors surveyed almost 200 managers and more than 450 subordinates in a wide range of industries. The leaders completed a questionnaire on the level of family–work conflict and enrichment in their lives, and answered a second survey a month later on the amount of burnout and engagement they felt on the job. The authors also asked the subordinates to rate their supervisors’ supportiveness—as well as their own positive and negative feelings at work—a week after the leaders’ second survey.

The analysis revealed that when leaders experience family–work conflicts, they’re more likely to feel cynical and exhausted on the job. This leads to faster burnout at work and more negative behaviors. Leaders passed on most of these attitudes to their subordinates, who also reported feeling more disillusioned and worn down at work. Conversely, leaders with a rewarding home life showed up to work more plugged-in and enthusiastic, spreading positive vibes that made employees feel more engaged and “in the flow.” Overall, these results are not terribly surprising.

Leaders with a rewarding home life showed up to work more enthusiastic, spreading positive vibes.

In a twist, however, the authors found that leaders seemed to transmit their feelings more powerfully through their moods than through their actions. In other words, employees were more likely to notice and adopt negative attitudes when their boss grumbled under his or her breath or sighed heavily than when that boss closed the office door and failed to provide the usual level of help or support.

Another counterintuitive finding: Although the subordinates of managers going through a difficult time at home were more likely to burn out and feel worn down by work, they were also more likely to engage with their boss positively at the office. This could mean that when employees see their leaders in a bad mood, they go above and beyond to cope with the negative environment and help their manager out of the doldrums, even if it means their own mood takes a beating.

The authors suggest that firms could use these findings to try to stop detrimental family–work emotions spilling over from leaders to followers at two points. Obviously, getting to the root of work–family conflicts is the first stage. Ways of making work and family demands more manageable for leaders include scaling back office hours and implementing a flexible schedule that includes more telecommuting.

If the problems persist, however, companies should consider a second phase of introducing social support at work. Inviting managers to blow off steam on a regular, formalized basis by meeting with advisors or counselors may prohibit them from unwittingly venting their negative emotions in front of subordinates. At the very least, leaders must be reminded that, because they are highly visible and respected members of the organization, their attitudes can be contagious.

But some of the onus rests with supervisors themselves, who should view a fulfilling home life as an essential aspect of offsetting all the stress and responsibility they encounter at work. Sure, you can always hire a nanny or maid to help with chores around the house. But a deeper investment in the home realm—making a point of taking family vacations instead of golf trips with work buddies, for example—can also lead to success in the professional realm.

Source: “Does Family Life Help to Be a Better Leader? A Closer Look at Crossover Processes From Leaders to Followers,” by Lieke L. Ten Brummelhuis (Simon Fraser University), Jarrod M. Haar (Massey University), and Maree Roche (University of Waikato), Personnel Psychology, Winter 2014, vol. 67, no. 4

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.