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Between Empathy and Burnout

New insights on manager interactions with employees highlight the delicate balance between managers who are aloof and those who care so much they burn out.

Thursday, April 10, 2014
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A new study from Michigan State University shows that bosses who invest energy into monitoring the fairness of workplace decisions can wind up emotionally and mentally drained. At the same time, a Lee Hecht Harrison survey released this month found that empathy is lacking among many supervisors.

While a large body of research indicates that fair outcomes, procedures and interpersonal treatment are key antecedents of desirable employee attitudes, researchers at Michigan State University wanted to gauge the effects on supervisors who create that environment, says study leader Russell E. Johnson, assistant professor in the department of management in the university's Broad College of Business.

"We were interested in better understanding the consequences of fair behaviors for actors, as opposed to recipients, with the suspicion that acting fair may come at some cost to managers," he says. "If so, then managers and organizations need to be made aware of this fact so they can take steps to mitigate the negative side-effects of being fair."

In the study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers surveyed 82 bosses twice a day for a few weeks, and managers who reported mental fatigue from situations involving procedural fairness were less cooperative and socially engaging with other workers -- even into the next day. Managers who are fair cannot realistically avoid some burnout, says Johnson.

"At the end of the day, you cannot get away from the fact that making sure procedures used to make decisions and allocate resources can be depleting activity," he says. "It is a critically important activity, though, so this is not to say that managers should avoid procedural fairness. Quite the opposite."

"Rather," he says, "when managers can anticipate times when procedural fairness behaviors are needed – for example, during those times of year when conducting performance evaluations of subordinates or when big decisions loom that impact the pay and/or employment of people -- it becomes especially important to ensure they take steps to both reduce depletion and help recover mental resources."

Johnson says some ways to achieve that are sufficient sleep and exercise, a healthy diet and sufficient downtime from work. The survey by Phoenix-based global talent mobility firm Lee Hecht Harrison does not necessarily conflict with what MSU researchers found -- and may be an indicator that supervisors are too drained, he says, adding that the survey does not delve into why supervisors are not demonstrating empathy.

The survey asked 626 U.S. workers to rate their manager's ability to demonstrate empathy for employee situations; 22 percent said their managers were "not at all understanding," while 30 percent said they were "rarely" understanding.

Developing emotional intelligence is one factor in showing enough empathy, according to Kristen Leverone, senior vice president for Lee Hecht Harrison's global talent development practice, who adds that EI is a fundamental trait in all good managers.

"Employees have diverse backgrounds and experiences that leaders may not share," she says. "If a leader isn't listening or hearing, employees won't be forthcoming or feel secure. So effective leaders must try to look beyond themselves and open up to other points of view. Failing to do this has serious consequences and will undermine trust, collaboration and, ultimately, productivity."

Finding the middle ground between empathy and burn out can be difficult but is attainable, says Anne-Marie Fort, senior consultant with Chicago-based BPI group's talent solutions group.

"The academic research and the survey results speak to the pull that managers feel to be open-minded and inclusive in their decision-making, and the impact that has on the manager's own emotional and mental well-being and resilience," she says.

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HR leaders can play an important role in helping managers use their energy in the most effective ways and maintain a culture of fairness, Fort says, referencing the book Willpower, which covers how willpower and decision-making ability are resources than can be depleted throughout a day.

"Understanding this natural process may help managers appreciate the need to regulate their decision-making efforts throughout the day," she says. "By focusing on when they have the best energy to make such decisions, especially those impacting procedural justice and fairness issues, managers may be able to stave off burnout. Interestingly, this same allotment of energy is also used to regulate behavior and demonstrate empathy towards others; so, the more energy that is expended on decision-making, the less that is available for demonstrating empathy."

James Emery, adjunct management professor and faculty director at Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, says there are some critical differences between the study and survey: the study deals with the effects of administering procedural justice to the manager while the survey deals with employee perceptions of their managers' interactional justice. A third consideration is at play, he says.

"That third consideration is called distributive justice, which has to do with the outcomes the affected person actually received," Emery says. "Thus, being 'fair-minded' is a potential oversimplification that may cause problems in and of itself. That is, if a manager interprets being fair-minded as consistently applying the company rules, while the employee considers fair-minded to mean whether the manager seeks to understand and convey concern for the employee, then the former may feel like he or she is being fair-minded while the latter may not feel this way."

HR can help managers achieve greater empathy by modeling it and showing the end results, says Laura Maxwell, leadership coach at the Accelerate Leadership Center at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"It is helpful for the manager to be shown the benefits of attempting to understand his employees," she says. "By taking the time to do so, managers can build a sense of trust in their employees and team. This can eventually lead to increased collaboration and, ultimately, improved productivity."

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