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Developing good relationships is a crucial aspect of leadership. Research shows that when people have a good relationship with their leaders, they’re more motivated, they perform better, and they’re more likely to go the extra mile to support their team. These positive effects have appeared across a wide range of jobs and cultures. Conversely, we know that when people don’t get along with their leaders, they tend to retaliate against them and the organization.
The majority of this research, however, considers these leader-follower relationships as either good or bad, positive or negative — which creates a false dichotomy. In reality, many relationships are both. Think about your love-hate relationships and your frenemies. Employees also have ambivalent relationships with their leaders, characterized by both positive and negative feelings toward them. For instance, we may think our leaders are both supportive and unsupportive, that they sometimes understand our problems, but at other times don’t.
In our research, recently published in the Journal of Management, we set out to explore the effects of having an ambivalent relationship with one’s leader. We conducted three studies in which we surveyed a total of 952 individuals. More than two-thirds of these were working adults based in India, the UK, and the U.S., and the rest of the participants were undergraduate students at a UK university who engaged in a business simulation.
We asked them all to rate the degree to which they thought their relationship was ambivalent (see sidebar). We also asked them to rate the overall quality of their relationship with their manager (i.e., whether it was good or bad) as well as their emotional experiences at work (i.e., whether they were positive or negative). We later asked their leaders to provide ratings of the their performance.
Across our studies, we found that employees who rated their relationship with their leader as highly ambivalent performed worse in their jobs (as rated by their leader) than those who rated the relationship as low in ambivalence. This effect held even when we controlled for the overall quality of the relationship. In other words, when people felt more ambivalently toward their leader, they had lower job performance, regardless of whether they rated their relationship overall as good or bad. Having mixed feelings about one’s leader seemed to make an otherwise poor-quality relationship worse and offset the benefits of a high-quality relationship.
Why do ambivalent leader-follower relationships have such powerful negative effects on job performance? We argue it is because of a well-known social psychological process called “cognitive consistency,” which says that we tend to seek consistency in our thoughts and feelings and avoid inconsistency. For example, people usually feel uncomfortable when they act in a way that is not consistent with their attitudes. (Individuals who smoke might do so despite knowing it is bad for their health.) To reduce this discomfort, they often change their original attitude to make it consistent with their behavior. (The smoker might persuade himself that the adverse health effects are overstated, or that he can’t avoid every possible risk out there.)
Ambivalence is a form of cognitive inconsistency that reflects being psychologically torn or conflicted — a feeling that we typically find unpleasant. This has been supported by research showing that ambivalent social relationships (such as friendships and family ties) are associated with increased cardiovascular stress, higher levels of daily blood pressure, and greater risk of disease. In our research we found that followers who reported having an ambivalent relationship with their leader were also more likely to report feeling more negative emotions, such as anxiety, at work, which may partly explain their lower job performance.
Fortunately, there are some steps leaders can take to improve their relationships with employees and to mitigate negative performance. Our work suggests three:
Understand the nature of your relationships at work. You want to understand how employees perceive your relationship. Because leaders tend to think their relationships with employees are more positive than employees believe them to be, the first step is to try to understand how others view the relationship. Leaders can ask employees specifically how they feel about their relationship, whether they think there’s enough trust, and whether they feel supported and listened to.
Move from ambivalence to positivity. To reduce ambivalence, leaders can focus on having more positive interactions and also try to highlight positive aspects of the relationship that may be going unnoticed. For example, you can tell an employee you supported their request or you shared one of their ideas with other managers. You can also mention improvements in your relationship that you’ve noticed. You can explain negative instances so they carry less weight in employees’ minds. For example, if you weren’t able to fulfil an employee’s request, you can listen to their questions and explain why. If you behaved impatiently, you can explain that you’ve been under intense deadline pressure.
Provide ways for employees to cope. Ambivalence within boss-employee relationships may be inevitable. Leaders often have to switch between multiple roles, from being a friend and confidant to being a disciplinarian and task-master. The relationship is characterized by a power differential and a degree of dependence. As a result, it may be difficult to completely overcome ambivalence.
But our research found that ambivalent leader-employee relationships did not always lead to decreased performance. People who felt supported by their teammates were able to better deal with the emotional stress of an ambivalent relationship with their boss. Teammates who share the same leader are well placed to provide empathy, support, and advice. Therefore, leaders should try to encourage team members to support each other. This involves creating an environment where employees feel safe being themselves and raising issues.
Overall, our research suggests that many employees feel ambivalent about the relationship they have with their manager. These feelings of ambivalence can occur even in relationships that are rated as high-quality overall. Furthermore, bad relationships did not hurt performance as much as ambivalent relationships did. This is a crucial point, as it emphasizes just how detrimental being conflicted about a leader can be.