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Survey of 866 Workers Shows How a Boss Can Make Workers Quit

"It really becomes incumbent on the leader to be good at self-reflection."

It’s not often that an organizational psychology study passes the litmus test of Reddit, generating nearly 4,000 comments and about 78,000 upvotes. But that happened this past weekend, and people jumped in line to share what they had in common with the research: bad experiences with bosses driven by a bottom-line mentality (BLM). And they — like the participants in the study — did exactly what bosses don’t want you to do. They ended up bailing.

In this fascinating new study (published in the journal Human Relations), researchers concluded that when supervisors are purely driven by bottom lines, they can end up losing the respect of their employees. These employees ultimately hold the power in deciding whether these bottom lines are achieved, because they can withhold performance.

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Study co-author and Baylor University assistant professor Matt Quade, Ph.D., and his colleagues define bottom-line mentality as one-dimensional thinking that revolves around securing one outcome at the risk of neglecting other competing priorities. Although research on bottom-line mentalities is limited, some patterns have emerged: High-BLM supervisors tend to operate in competitive game-like environments with a win-loss mentality, and tend to focus on how their decisions impact short-term financial profit, rather than how they affect their organization in the long-term.

“If we think about the optimal leaders we’ve had in our lives, we typically think of them caring about our own development,” Quade tells me. “They create opportunities for us to grow, improve, and develop new skills.”

Those are not the priorities of a high-BLM supervisor, whose one-dimensional thinking often causes them to ignore ethical and environmental considerations.

Employees respond poorly to bosses who overly value their bottom-line mentality.

This new study shows that one-dimensional thinking can come at a cost to the supervisor. A total of 866 people, half supervisors and half employees, were included in a set of surveys. These individuals represented a range of industries, including financial services, health care, and sales, and were predominantly white and middle-aged. The employees reported having worked an average of six-and-a-half years with their direct supervisor, whose responses were also included.

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Employees rated their supervisors’ BLM by scoring on a scale of statements like “My supervisor cares more about profits than his/her employees’ well-being” and rated statements like “I like my supervisor very much as a person.” Meanwhile, supervisors were asked to rate their employees by scoring statements like “This employee meets or exceeds his/her productivity requirements.”

Overall, the team found that high-BLM supervisors created low-quality relationships with their employees. In turn, this poor relationship often drove employees to reciprocate by withholding performance. This even happened when both the supervisor and the employee BLM are high — negative performances still persisted because the employee still needed more from their boss. It didn’t matter if both the boss and the employee wanted the same things if a healthy, social exchange relationship wasn’t fostered.

Consider the Viewpoint of the Employees

Quade says that something that he hopes supervisors take away from this paper is a motivation to consider the viewpoint of their employees. Something he teaches in his classes is the importance of perceptions. An employees perception of his or her supervisor, Quade explains, “is really the only reality the supervisor has to deal with.” It’s possible that a supervisor may not realize they even have a BLM — but if their employees think they do, that view is what employees are going to respond to, not whatever is in the secret heart of their bosses.

“It’s not often that leaders step back and really think about how others are perceiving them,” Quade says. “They are often focused on what they need to do, and not necessarily on how that’s resonating — or failing to resonate — with people.”

This means more than relying on an annual review process or even an office “open door” policy. While it’s easy to say those are a part of office culture, research indicates that it’s rare people feel comfortable taking part unless they are encouraged sincerely to do so.

“It really becomes incumbent on the leader to be good at self-reflection and really try to identify whether they are engaging with employees in the way that gives them the opportunity to speak up,” Quade says. “Leaders have to clearly model that, if an employee gives feedback, they won’t hold it against them or respond negatively.”

For example: After the study went viral on Reddit, Quade has received a number of emails from people about it. One of those emails was from a person who wanted to discuss the study with their team. They try to meet weekly and discuss the culture they are creating at work as leaders — in turn, engaging in the exact sort of needed reflection Quade is prescribing.

A comment from Reddit. 

It’s more difficult to say how employees should respond when they have a high-BLM supervisor who causes them to feel unsupported at work. Quade noted that it made him nervous to see Reddit commenters say that they left their jobs because of their high-BLM bosses. It’s possible that the grass is always greener, and, as Quade sums it up, “there’s something to be said for being employed.”

An Ethical Voice

But it remains true that organizations and supervisors have most of the power when it comes to changing the way an office operates. That said, Quade does encourage employees to practice developing what he calls an “ethical voice.”

“An ethical voice involves standing up for yourself, but in a way that’s respectful and not just for the sake of criticism,” Quade says. “I think it’s really important for employees to develop that voice and feel like, ‘Hey, I can speak to my experiences, and if I do that there could be a chance of improvement for the entire organization.’”

And if that happens, and the supervisor responds with hostility, then yes — an employee should probably get out of there. Most supervisors, Quade genuinely believes, want to be good at their job. It’s possible that with their own work pressures, they’ve forgotten that their job means more than achieving the goal they’ve decided is the most important. Work relationships are still relationships, and if a boss can’t foster loyalty and respect, then employees aren’t going to help them win.

This article is an adapted version of our “Strategy” newsletter. Sign up for free.

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