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                Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

              • Faculty & Research

                Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

              • Faculty & Research

                Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

              Friday, February 14, 2020

              The Effects of Supervisor and Subordinate Emotional Stability on Emotional Exhaustion

              By Emily M. David, Mindy K. Shoss, Lars U. Johnson, and L. Alan Witt

              Studies abound chronicling the negative effects that ineffective, emotional, and/or unsupportive supervisors have on employees. Although the popular press is also quick to place the blame on ‘‘bad bosses” who are making employees emotionally and physically ill, researchers have recently posited that a more comprehensive picture of leadership can be painted by examining the joint impact of supervisor and subordinate characteristics. In light of the widely accepted notion that leaders do not behave identically with each of their followers and research showing that specific types of followers are more likely to mimic the emotional displays of others, we suggest that certain supervisor-subordinate combinations are more caustic than others. To investigate this notion, we examined the joint effects of supervisor and subordinate emotional stability on employee emotional exhaustion.

              Emotional exhaustion reflects general feelings of being worn down, overextended, and drained of emotional and energy resources. In addition to extensive negative health effects for employees, emotional exhaustion poses substantial organizational costs in terms of lower productivity.

              As a leader trait, emotional stability reflects the tendency to be calm during a crisis, patient with employees, and unflustered in the face of obstacles. Leaders low in this trait, alternatively, tend to be moody, defensive, and callous. Several studies suggest that leaders low in emotional stability are rated as poor-performing and ineffective bosses, demonstrate decreased inspiration and role modelling, and fail to regulate extreme and ‘‘dark side” behaviours.

              However, despite the intuitiveness of the notion that low supervisor emotional stability results in undesirable outcomes for subordinates, several studies have failed to support hypotheses linking supervisor emotional stability to employee outcomes. Moreover, growing evidence points to the existence of contingencies. As such, we did not expect leader emotional stability to demonstrate a main effect on subordinate emotional exhaustion, but rather that the unique combination of leader and subordinate personality profiles will dictate subordinate stress outcomes.

              Study 1

              Our first study consisted of surveying a sample of 299 employees nested under 35 supervisors working in a North American public-sector organization. The workers performed light construction and maintenance tasks in field locations accompanied by their respective supervisors. On average, each supervisor was responsible for 12.28 employees. The employees frequently had to work together to complete their job tasks. As part of the survey, participants were asked to rate their level of emotional stability and emotional exhaustion.

              The results of our survey suggested that having a low emotional stability boss is not universally damaging, but rather that this leader trait is particularly toxic for low-emotional stability subordinates. Further, our analyses revealed that as long as either the supervisor or the subordinate was high in emotional stability, the subordinate was able to stave off emotional exhaustion. That is, high emotional stability supervisors may have acted as a resource for employees to help buffer against emotional exhaustion.

              However, we acknowledged that there might be questions regarding the degree to which our findings generalize to workers that have different job tasks, work settings, and amount of interaction with their supervisor. The employees in Study 1 performed manual work and were accompanied by their supervisor on job sites. Moreover, safety-related concerns may have made emotional displays and experiences particularly salient. Thus, in Study 2, we sought additional data from employees who perform more cognitive work with less interdependence with their supervisors.

              Study 2

              For Study 2, data was collected via an online survey of 294 employees nested under 86 supervisors working in a separate division of the organization featured in Study 1. On average, each supervisor was responsible for 3.42 employees. Participants at the ‘‘employee” level of this study worked in entry-level supervisor roles. Supervisors in this study worked in midlevel management roles with infrequent visits to the location where their employees worked and, thus, lower levels of contact with their direct reports than in Study 1. Similar to Study 1, as part of the survey, participants were asked to rate their level of emotional stability and emotional exhaustion.

              As with Study 1, we found that subordinate emotional stability was negatively related to subordinate emotional exhaustion. Unlike Study 1, however, supervisor emotional stability was negatively and significantly related to subordinate emotional exhaustion. Moreover, in Study 2, the type of supervisor-subordinate incongruence mattered. This group of employees experienced high exhaustion when their own level of emotional stability was low but their supervisor’s level of emotional stability was high. This pattern of results implies that high emotional stability supervisors had less of a calming influence on low-emotional stability customer service employees with fewer supervisor interactions.

              General discussion

              Results from both studies showed that supervisor and subordinate congruence at low levels of emotional stability is most detrimental in terms of subordinate emotional exhaustion. Interestingly, however, they suggest different effects for supervisor-subordinate incongruence. For Study 1, high levels of supervisor emotional stability seem to help buffer the negative effects of low subordinate emotional stability. For Study 2, however, low-emotional stability employees experienced high levels of exhaustion regardless of their supervisor’s level of emotional stability.

              One potential explanation for the differential results we found may lie within the characteristics of our samples. Study 2 participants likely have higher levels of autonomy and lower levels of interdependence than those in Study 1. Hence, we suspect these individuals are faced with a variety of demands that they must deal with on their own such as ensuring high levels of customer service, meeting project deadlines, and providing detailed documentation. Aside from having less supervisor interaction, the source of strain may differ across the two samples as well. Whereas the workers in Study 1 may be primarily affected by concerns for personal safety as well as the emotional state of their supervisor and workgroup, the employees in Study 2 may be faced with more customer-related and time pressure sources of strain.

              We also note that perhaps extremely high levels of leader emotional stability may fail to provide the energy and motivation that could help low-emotional stability employees in more cognitively complex jobs overcome exhaustion. When workers come to emotionally stable bosses with worries about rude customers and unreasonable deadlines, it is possible that their emotionally-neutral demeanour may fuel rather than extinguish exhaustion.

              Practical implications

              Our results have several practical implications. First, we emphasize the need to select both managerial and front-line employees high in emotional stability. Given that other traits and competencies are often given more weight in the selection process, however, we recognize that this is not always possible. Accordingly, we encourage management and human resource professionals to keep this trait in mind when making internal promotion decisions to leadership positions.

              From an individual standpoint, we recommend that low emotional stability subordinates should make efforts to adopt positive coping strategies and seek out social support, particularly when paired with a low-emotional stability boss. Organizations can assist in these efforts by providing training to help employees acquire skills related to emotional regulation.

              This is a condensed version of this article. The complete version of this article can be downloaded here.

              Emily M. David is an Assistant Professor of Management at CEIBS. For more information about her teaching and research interests, please visit her faculty profile here. Mindy K. Shoss is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida, Lars U. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wayne State University, and L. Alan Witt a Professor of Management and Psychology at the University of Houston.