Management for the masses: Motivation “spillover”

Indiana University Kelley School of Business  8.31.10We know that a company’s first line supervisors are important. For many employees, their boss is their conduit to the organization: how the supervisor communicates, interacts, and treats people forms the basis for how employees feel the company as a whole operates. Managers can also be directly responsible for employees’ decisions to stay in or leave their jobs. There is much truth to the old adage that “People don’t leave companies… they leave bosses.”

The question, then, is how supervisors can best motivate their employees, particularly in times of change. One recent study looked at how supervisors were most effective in persuading customer service representatives to adopt a new technology tool. Specifically, they examined which supervisors’ behaviors were most likely to result in their team of employees having a positive attitude toward the new technology and using it readily.

It turns out that employees were most positively influenced by managers who showed through both their actions and words that they believed the new technology was beneficial. Bosses who believed they themselves could successfully use the tool, and who expressed the belief that the tool would make them more efficient, were more persuasive than those who merely told employees that the team had to use it.

On the other hand, this study reinforced a commonly held stereotype about generational differences in the use of technology in the workplace. It turns out that age differences between the manager and his/her employees mattered a great deal. When there was a large age gap between the two (for example, a young supervisor and an older work team), having a manager who strongly valued the adoption of new technology actually decreased the extent to which employees intended to use it. This was also the case whenever a manager was judged generally non-charismatic or was unliked by subordinates. The researchers hypothesized that the more similar to them employees perceived their manager to be, the more likely they were to be influenced by that manager’s motivation for a new task.

These results tell us that employees’ motivation to engage in new behaviors depends in part on their supervisors’ motivation toward those behaviors. Managers should realize that their motivation for a task “spills over” to affect their employees, particularly those close in age. And the more similar a manager is to the people he/she supervises, the stronger this “contagion” effect will be.

Wieske, J., Kraus, F., Alavi, S. H., & Kessler-Thones, T. (2011). How leaders’ motivation transfers to customer service representatives.  Journal of Service Research, 14, 214-233.