June 25, 2007

How Do Employees Resond to Supervisors

Research by Dr. Christine RiordanĀ 

Does similarity between supervisors and employees influence employees' opinions of their supervisors' effectiveness? The answer is important, as diversity increases in the labor force and evidence shows that employees' opinions of their supervisors are linked to company morale and performance. A team of three researchers, Dr. Christine Riordan of the Neeley School, along with Dr. Caren Goldberg of American University and Lu Zhang of George Washington University, examined this question and found some surprising results.

Their research, "Employees' Perceptions of Their Leaders: Is Being Similar Always Better?" which will be published in Group and Organization Management , surveyed 165 middle and upper-level managers employed in city governments in the eastern U.S., and related the race (African-American and Caucasian) and gender of these managers to their opinions of the effectiveness of their supervisors.

They found that a key variable was self continuity: the degree to which an individual identifies with others who are demographically similar to him/her. Those who are high in self continuity strongly identify with demographically similar people. Those who are low in self continuity do not. In this study, respondents' opinions about the effectiveness of their demographically similar supervisors were either positive or negative according to the strength of the respondents' self-continuity.

"Our research found that demographic similarities do not necessarily play a direct role in employees' assessments of supervisors, but the indirect results were quite compelling," says Dr. Riordan, a professor of management and leading authority on labor-force diversity.

The researchers found that males and Caucasians, who are members of demographic groups that are traditionally in high positions within business organizations, were high on self continuity and had more favorable opinions of Caucasian and male bosses. "Identifying with superiors of similar demographics had a positive affect on these employees' ratings of their supervisors' effectiveness. We believe that self continuity enhances the respondents' self image and reinforces their membership in the group," says Riordan.

On the other hand, African-American and women employees had less favorable opinions of African-American and female bosses if they had low self continuity. Instead, these employees may prefer to forge positive self-images by identifying with superiors outside their own demographics.

"For employees who are sensitive to being in a demographic group that they think of as being perceived as lower in status, demographic similarities with their supervisors can negatively influence how they view their supervisors' effectiveness as leaders," explains Dr. Riordan. "Minority employees do not always think of their demographically similar supervisor as being effective. This tendency is highly variable, depending on these employees' desire to strengthen, ignore or reject a sense of demographic self-continuity."

These findings - which lead to understanding and predicting employee reactions to diversity - have important implications for the workplace.

Employers should be aware that employees who exhibit a strong desire to be with demographically similar others may be less receptive to diverse employee-supervisor relationships as well as diversity initiatives. Organizations should encourage and train employees and supervisors to emphasize work activities that they have in common, such as project goals or other mutual interests, to build meaningful work relationships.

"Such activities force all parties to look beyond surface-level characteristics," explains Dr. Riordan. Organizations may also initiate programs that foster greater social involvement across various demographic groups (e.g., racial, gender, age, and generational) to improve cohesion.

Finally, organizations should put in place and actively monitor policies, practices, training, and communication that reduce perceptions of inequality or status differentials among various demographic groups.


Elaine Cole
Public Relations Manager
Neeley School of Business at TCU