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When Close Relations Between Employees and Managers Backfire

Managers often seek to develop good working relationships with employees — and for good reason. Those close ties motivate commitment to work and support among the workforce, along with better overall performance. But is there any risk that too much bonding with employees could backfire?

Recent research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that the risk is indeed legitimate. When managers fail to set appropriate expectations and deadlines, their working relationships can lead to less-engaged and less responsive employees.

That research is based on what management scholars refer to as “social exchange theory,” which suggests that managers and employees interact through continual transactions, with each party offering and receiving work-related resources. These interactions determine the quality of their relationship — and that, in turn, influences how everyone acts in future interactions. More specifically, exchanging resources like guidance, feedback, work effort, and rewards helps develop robust relationships between managers and employees; and over a period of time, this relationship becomes more about long-term mutual goals and benefits instead of contractual, short-term obligations.

Ideally, when an employee believes their manager is sending more resources their way (be it more assignments, recognition, advice, etc.), they will respond by immediately returning that “favor”— typically this translates to them being more engaged and working harder. But the researchers also wondered if perhaps someone had strong positive relationships with their managers, they may not feel pressure to return a favor right away. This situation could lead to unexpected and unwelcome challenges for those managers.

For instance, imagine Jake, a marketing assistant who is close with his direct manager. We propose that Jake wouldn’t feel especially motivated to prioritize helping his manager prepare for tomorrow’s meeting. Instead, he might continue focusing on a task with bigger implications: developing strategic plans for his team.

In a field study, the researchers pulled together data from 73 pairs of managers and employees at an technology company in Northern China. First they surveyed them to evaluate the overall quality of their relationship. Then they closely followed 600 one-on-one work interactions over the course of 10 days, by asking those team members to use a smartphone survey platform to write about any face-to-face interactions they had with each that ran for more than two minutes. (This could include anything from meetings, feedback conversations, or general chats.) The participatns reported what they received and provided, whether they felt responsible or compelled to do more for the other person, and their level of engagement immediately following the interaction. The study controlled for age, gender, the amount of time participants had worked together, and the quality of each interaction (i.e., “I am satisfied with the interaction”).

The study determined that how much managers and employees “give and receive” varied significantly across interactions. When managers invested more in a certain interaction, employees in general would immediately feel obligated to “repay” them by putting in more effort and contributing more next time.

But interestingly, this wasn’t true with employees who had stronger working relationships with their managers. They actually felt less obligated to immediately return the favor and thus would be less engaged in work and often didn’t “return the favor” by contributing more in their next interaction. They appeared to take advantage of the good rapport they had with their boss, focusing less on making things feel balanced in the short term. These findings lined up with previous research on U.S. workers and managers, which shows how strong work relationships make employees take longer to reciprocate favors in the short term.

The takeaway is that supervisors who maintain strong relationships with employees could face an unexpected risk: those under them could limit their efficiency by taking longer to complete immediate requests. To clarify, the study wasn’t saying that managers should quit building strong relationships with employees. It’s still important for getting employees to put in their best work. If managers are seeking more effort and responsiveness, they must start by “giving” more resources to employees, (eg. through greater recognition, stronger empowerment, more meaningful work, and helpful guidance.)

But the research simultaneously suggests that managers should remain mindful of how to make even their strongest direct report relationships more effective. One conclusion is to establish very clear expectations for when a task needs to be completed.

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Emery Reddy