June 08, 2007

How Do Employees Respond to Supervisors of their own Demographics?

Research by Dr. Christine Riordan

How important is demographic similarity between supervisors and employees to   employees' opinions of how effective their supervisors are? The answer to this question is valuable to organizations as demographic diversity continues to increase in the labor force and evidence grows that employees' perceptions of their supervisors' effectiveness are linked to company morale and performance. A team of three researchers, Dr. Christine M. Riordan of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Dr. Caren Goldberg of American University and Lu Zhang of George Washington University, both in Washington, D.C., examined this question and found some surprising results.

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

The study found that a key variable was "self continuity."  Self-continuity is 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 do not identify closely with demographically similar people. In this study, the 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 as they do in supervisors' assessments of employees, but the indirect results were quite compelling," says Dr. Riordan, a professor of management at the Neeley School of Business at TCU and a leading authority on labor-force diversity. For example, 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 white and male bosses than did others.  "For these employees, identifying with superiors of similar demographics had a positive affect on their ratings of their supervisors' effectiveness. We think 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 wished to dissociate themselves from these demographics. Instead, they may prefer to forge positive self-images by identifying with superiors outside their own demographics.

"To 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. "That is, minority direct reports do not always think of their demographically similar supervisor as being effective. This tendency is highly variable among minority individuals, depending on their desire to strengthen, ignore or reject a sense of demographic self-continuity."

These findings have important implications for the workplace. Given the demographically diverse composition of the workforce today and the projected increase in diversity, understanding and predicting employee reactions to such diversity is critical.

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 employees 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 such as demographic similarities or dissimilarities," explains Dr. Riordan. Organizations may also initiate programs that foster greater social involvement across various demographic groups (e.g., racial, gender, age, and generational) over time 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.

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Elaine Cole
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Neeley School of Business at TCU
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e.cole@tcu.edu