Middle managers copy bosses' bad behaviour

Middle managers copy bosses' bad behaviour

The expression ‘lead by example’ has been proven even more important, after fresh research has shown that middle managers copy their bosses’ bad behaviour.

Researchers at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Cambridge University have undertaken five studies that show that middle managers copy the behaviour of their bosses, at least if they have offices close to each other.

Senior managers, who have an unethical leader style and treat their subordinates unfairly, will have middle managers who treat their subordinates the same way, at least if the spatial distance between them and top management is low.

This will in turn lead to employee dissatisfaction, lower organisational commitment and increased employee turnover.

However, the effect is reversed if the spatial distance between managers and top management is high.

That means that if middle managers who have some distance between them and their bosses, for instance if they sit in different ends of a corridor, then the middle management will treat their subordinates much fairer.

Dr. Gijs Van Houwelingen who co-wrote the survey says: “It is crucial that organisations understand the threat of overly close and highly interdependent relationships between lower and higher management in the organisation. Mangers at all levels in any organisation need to strike a balance between a certain sense of closeness to ensure efficiency, and some sense of distance to ensure that negative behaviour top-level behaviour does not spread unhindered through all layers of the organisation.” 

Van Houwelingen spoke exclusively to Executive Grapevine about about the effects of distance on bad behaviour' for managers, and also offered up a potential solution: "We operationalize distance in two ways: social (the distance you feel towards another person) an physical distance (the distance between you and another in the physical realm). We show that both these constructs have a similar effect in the context of undesirable top-level management behavior (e.g. unfair behavior at the top).

"If the distance between top and middle is relatively small, middle managers are likely to take over their own superior's behavior. That is: if their own superior behaves unfairly, the middle manager is likely to also treat his or her own subordinates unfairly. When distance is increased, this effect diminishes up to the level that it actually reverses: when distance is sufficiently high, middle managers are likely to treat their own subordinates more fair when they themselves experience unfair treatment.

"We explain this by the fact that people often subconsciously mirror the behavior of important role models, such as organizational leaders. Distance affects this effect; you are less likely to mirror someone quite far removed from you when compared to someone right under your nose. In essence, thus, distance insulates middle managers from the negative effect of top-level behavior and allows them to make up their own mind.

"Of course whether middle managers have the capacity to influence either of them, will be context-dependent. However, my best guess is that social distance is a lot easier to 'manage' when compared to physical distance. I have relatively little influence on where my office is, who I share an office with etc.

"In contrast, I have a lot more discretion when it comes to choosing whom I socialize with outside of work, who I sit next to during lunch etc. Hence, middle managers who find themselves confronted with misbehaving bosses may try to distance themselves from this supervisor by trying to associate with other, more positive, rolemodels (e.g. other supervisors in the company, more senior colleagues and the like). Building social distance in this way may help to dampen the subconcious mirorring effect. However, this requires people to be very conscious about whom to associate with and whom not to associate with. I am not sure whether people are generally very mindful about that aspect of working life. It is a viable option nonetheless, though."

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