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Managers’ Behaviors Are Contagious

Topics: Work Culture

Anyone who’s ever had a job knows the impact a boss can have on the happiness of employees. A bad boss, whether she be cruel, overly demanding, or simply incompetent, can be enough to drive workers out the door. But, it turns out that the behaviors and attitudes of managers might have a bigger impact on the lives of employees than is immediately obvious. Let’s look a little more closely at how managers’ behaviors affect the people around them.


(Photo Credit: MyBiggestFan/Flickr)

1. Some behaviors affect workers more than others.

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Recently, leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman examined 360-reviews of high-level managers and their mid-level reports (also managers) to see which behaviors were most contagious. Their analysis, published in Harvard Business Review, showed a significant link between the behaviors of managers and the actions of those who report directly to them.

The researchers gathered data on a variety of behaviors through analysis of 265 pairs of managers and their direct reports. Behaviors that centered around certain themes were thought to be especially contagious. The five (out of eight) clusters of actions that were dubbed the most contagious were “developing self and others,” “technical skills,” “strategy skills,” “consideration and cooperation,” and “integrity and honesty.”

2. Emotions are contagious.

Empathy helps ensure the survival of the species as it propels us to understand and care for each other. But, sometimes (like with a difficult manager) the contagious nature of our emotions can be quite a drag. Science has found that, whether we’re aware of it or not, we mimic the feelings and emotions of the people around us. So, if you work for a miserable boss, you will probably be pretty unhappy too.

Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, recently shared an example of how of a new executive’s hire impacted a company where he worked. 

“I began to feel more anxious and suspicious, and others on our team seemed more tense,” Schwartz wrote on his company’s blog. “The buoyant, productive atmosphere that had characterized our culture for years, even in tough times, began to seep away.”

Many workers can relate to this kind of scenario. If you find yourself in a position like this, it might be interesting to ask yourself if the emotions you’re feeling are similar to the ones your boss is exhibiting. And, keep in mind that these emotions are likely to spread like wildfire, since a manager has direct contact with so many people at the company.

3. It’s hard to leave it at work. 

Recent research has found that the emotional climate of one family member’s job can have an effect on how the entire family relates to one another. Not surprisingly, the effects were most acute for the employee’s significant other, and when the boss’s behavior was most abusive. But, it is important to realize that the behaviors and attitudes of your boss could get under your skin and stick with you, well after you’ve left the office.

The contagious nature of managers’ behaviors and attitudes should give us pause when we’re considering taking a new job, or debating whether or not to stay with one we already have. There is much more to having a difficult boss than is immediately obvious. We’d be wise to carefully consider the personal impact of working for someone whose attitudes, priorities, and behaviors are incongruent with our own.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you notice that your manager’s behaviors have spread to the rest of the office? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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