PSU study finds that employee well-being depends on relationship with boss

The quality of the daily interactions between an employee and their manager has the potential to positively or negatively impact their well-being over time, according to a new study with authors from The School of Business at Portland State University. 

The study, “Daily perceptions of relationship quality with leaders: implications for follower well-being,” was co-authored by PSU business faculty Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan and published in the journal Work & Stress. The researchers explored the daily fluctuations in employees’ perceptions of their relationships with their managers and how this perception impacted their daily reports of well-being. 

Two coworkers talking

A high-quality relationship between an employee and manager is characterized by trust, liking, affect and mutual respect—which predict employee job attitudes, performance, citizenship behavior and employee’s work environments (as summarized by Dulebohn and colleagues in 2012). Although research has explored this topic widely, it had yet to explore the impact that daily fluctuations in the quality of the relationship has on an employee’s well-being over time. 

The PSU researchers found that on days where employees perceived a higher-quality relationship with their managers, they were most likely to report a sense of belongingness and vigor—core components of well-being—and less likely to report feelings of emotional exhaustion. Conversely, workers who sensed an inconsistent or low-quality relationship with their manager on a given day were more likely to report higher levels of emotional exhaustion the following day. 

The study points out that employee perceptions of their relationship quality with their manager may vary from one day to the other, and such daily inconsistent blends of high- and low-quality relationship interactions can lead employees to perceive the relationship as unstable. 

“The assumption has been such that once the leader and employee get to know each other and establish a particular relationship, the quality of the relationship remains relatively stable over time,” the PSU study states. 

Factors such as daily interactions, events and new information might directly impact the extent to which perceptions of one’s relationship with their supervisor varies.  

“Leaders may not have opportunities to support, show concern and act in a predictable manner each and every day,” the PSU study concludes. “Further, employees may have different and varying expectations and needs, which leaders may or may not be aware of or be able to meet on a given day.”

The perception of an unstable relationship with one’s boss contributes to a “threat” mindset where the individual focuses on the potential of loss of resources, such as their income or loss of identity related to their job, rather than engagement in their role. A perceived inconsistent blend of interactions resulted in the employee’s loss of ability to capitalize on the benefits of daily relationship quality that contributes to well-being.

The researchers suggest a few tips for managers on how to improve daily interactions, and thus the well-being of employees:

  • Ensure that each of your daily interactions with your employees are respectful. 
  • Make sure that you are available when employees reach out to you, so employees do not feel that they are being ignored or neglected. 
  • Give credit to employees and recognize their accomplishments. 
  • Offer support when employees are stressed, and help them share the burden.

The study’s co-authors include lead author Allison Ellis from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and Donald Truxillo, a former psychology professor from Portland State University who is now at the University of Limerick, Ireland.