Last month, begrudged employees everywhere were vindicated by the results of a new study about terrible bosses. In short, leaders often implement inefficient office cultures by relying too much on their past experiences as opposed to assessing the lay of the land.
It’s not their fault really, Yeun Joon Kim, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management who helped write the new paper, tells Inverse. People have limited cognitive ability and are naturally inclined to rely on past experience to guide our decision making. The results were published in the most recent edition of the Academy of Management Journal.
“This is actually really prevalent,” Kim tells Inverse. “Because [there’s] too much information and they have limited cognitive capacity, [new leaders] have really low motivation to look at their current situation, they just rely on their past experience to create their current work culture.”
This is a problem, because every work culture is different, and different types of jobs thrive in different environments. Kim’s research focused specifically on the element of cultural “tightness,” which, he explains, is “the extent to which the group has many strongly enforced norms.” He elaborated using the example of software developers.
“A software engineering team— they have to be creative,” he said. “In that case, a loose culture is better. If their job is to be creative, you should not create a lot of rules. So if the leader actually paid attention, they’d create looser culture. But if they look at their past, they’ll simply transfer. And if their former team had really tight culture, then the culture will be really ineffective for those in software engineering.”
Kim’s work is also important because it challenges a classic understanding about how people adjust to new surroundings.
“How good are people at adjusting?” Kim asks. “Some researchers have suggested the so-called socialization theory, meaning that in new situations, people have higher motivation to adjust themselves. But what I found was the complete opposite.”
There’s a happy ending here. Kim said that new leaders who spent two weeks following more on the job — simply doing their tasks, taking notes — were more resistant to the bias bias. And eventually, a new culture and new surroundings will start to stick. We do adapt. But in part because of this bias, that can take a really long time — Kim’s results suggested up to 18 months. Here are a few other tactics that can help you rise to the occasion.
1. Reduce Ambiguity
While trying to be an ethical leader might seem like a no-brainer, being ethical has an interesting drawback, according to a paper from researchers at Baylor University. When employees don’t feel supported, an ethical boss stresses them out even more than an more unethical boss would. One solution, according to lead author and management professor Matthew Quade, is to focus on reducing ambiguity, particularly around ethical dilemmas, since these situations drain a lot of employee’s brain power.
2. Give Extra Love to the Telecommuters
Telecommuting is on the rise. In 2016, close to half — 43 percent — of employees worked remotely at least some of the time. Better work-life balance may make it a fair trade off for many. But other research out of Brigham Young University has found that telecommuting can result in leadership problems. People, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend to have a positive bias toward the people in their physical presence. Their findings, the researchers say, suggests that telecommuting should really be all or nothing, either everyone’s in the office most of the time, or no one is.
3. Don’t Follow Too Much
Returning to Kim’s research, it’s important to note that the behavioral modification he tried, encouraging leaders to basically be followers for two weeks, had a narrow time window. That’s because other research about leadership suggests that leaders can also go wrong by following too much, when they should instead be figuring out how their leadership can complement an existing organization. The takeaway is actually similar to Kim’s finding — leadership requires responding to the current situation — but offers a qualifier about the dangers of following too much:
This requires thinking about how what you bring to the table is different from what the company already has (a social workplace culture, for example, might benefit from more project-oriented style of leadership). You got the gig, after all.
This has been an adaption of Strategy, a weekly rundown of the most pertinent financial, career, and lifestyle advice you’ll need to live your best life. I’m James Dennin, innovation editor at Inverse. If you’ve got money or career questions you’d like to see answered here, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org — and pass on Strategy with this link!