MSU Researchers Examine What Qualities Make A Good Boss


A new series of studies from researchers at Michigan State University indicate bosses who were supportive and set clear expectations can effectively motivate their employees, even if they weren’t described as “transformational leaders” or having “grand visions.”

The study, published in the journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, is one of the first to examine how a leader’s mindset affects his or her own behavior, and consequently, their employees’ motivation. Led by Russell Johnson, an MSU associate professor of management, the research team conducted field studies and experiments with hundreds of managers and employees from a variety of industries, including professional services, manufacturing, and government.

“We found that the motivations of managers are contagious and ‘trickle down’ to their subordinates,” says Johnson. “Thus, if managers are unhappy with how their people are approaching work tasks, the managers might actually be the ones responsible for eliciting their motivation in the first place. Managers can modify their leadership behavior to trigger the appropriate motivation orientation in their employees to fit the situation.”

The findings also suggest that bosses can modify their mindset to produce a certain outcome from workers, whether that’s innovation or a more conservative focus aimed at meeting basic operations and preventing errors.

Bosses who had an innovative mindset (called promotion focus) were more likely to lead in a transformative way and thus elicit an innovative mindset among employees. Bosses with a more conservative mindset (called prevention focus) were more likely to “manage by exception,” which involves focusing almost exclusively on preventing mistakes, thus eliciting a prevention focus among workers.

Study co-author Brent Scott, a MSU professor of management, adds that it’s unrealistic to believe all bosses can be, or want to be, a transformational leader all the time, and that some workplaces or situations call for a more preventative approach.

“The contingent approach is quid pro quo — if you do this, I’ll give you that,” says Scott. “It’s not sexy like transformational leadership, but it’s something that just about every manager can do because it doesn’t require you to ooze charisma.”

Both professors suggest “contingent reward behavior” might be a sweet spot for managerial style, emphasizing gains and providing both positive and negative reinforcement based on performance.

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