Why inexperienced managers should steer clear of emotions at work

Picture yourself in this scenario: you’ve just started a new managerial role. On your first day on the job, one of your employees confides in you about how her mother’s deteriorating health is taking on a toll on her time outside of the office. She implores you for advice on how to best deal with the situation.

You imagine an experienced manager might offer a sincere, but curt response. But, when faced with an employee, you find that this measured apathy is not so easy to pull off. You are more likely to experience a “mixture of distress, sadness, and nervousness — and be less engaged at work that day,” according to a recent study by Harvard Business Review, 

You’ve just found yourself in quagmire managers, especially those at a novice level, find themselves facing all too often.

Managers in certain fields spend an average of 2.5 hours every week dealing with issues like this one. It’s understandable that the manager is the first person that comes to mind when an employee is seeking advice or comfort. This in itself may not be that alarming — what’s more surprising is the emotional toll it takes on the manager. 

To investigate this, Harvard Business Review surveyed 43 mid-level and senior managers and up to five of their followers every day for a total of three work weeks. Leaders were asked to record their mood at the beginning and end of each week.  They were also asked to record how often they were asked to respond to support requests.

Two request types were considered: work-related and personal. At the end of each day, five employees were asked to rate their manager’s work engagement. 

Days in which the leaders helped their employees with personal issues correlated positively with increased negativity. The researchers posited that this was due to emotional contagion in which the leaders had picked up on the negative emotions from the complaining employee.

The same was true of the inverse; if an employee had shared a positive personal account with the managers, the negative mood was lessened. Seasoned managers, however, seem to be immune to this kind of emotional contagion — the survey results proved them to be significantly less afflicted by these kinds of personal admissions. 

The employee perspective 

If you feel inclined to be receptive emotional baggage of an employee despite the emotional burden tax it may have on you, the findings suggest your support does little for your fellow employees.

The survey found that employees did not value their manager’s support on personal issues as much as they respected their advice on job-related issues.  

While providing work-related advice to their employees improved the leaders’ engagement at work that day, lending personal advice has the opposite effect. On the days when a manager advised on personal issues, their employees rated their level of work engagement significantly lower (even if the manager had helped with work-related problems). The good they achieved helping out employees with work-related advice was canceled out if they had assisted an employee with personal-related help that day. 

This is most likely due to the fact that advice of a more personal nature happens behind closed doors with a single employee, making the manager less available to take part in work-related help with other employees. 

Based on the data, employees seeking help with a personal matter may want to avoid relaying the issue to an inexperienced manager. If you do decide to confide in a manager, pick a time in which they’re not particularly busy. In accordance with the data, their work performance is far less likely to be affected in this case.

The results of the survey were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.