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Study: Bad Middle Managers are Just a Reflection of their Bosses

Keeping middle managers happy with their supervisors is the key to retaining the lower-level workers they manage and avoiding expensive turnover costs, according to a Vanderbilt University study.

by Jim Patterson
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office argumentA recent study from Vanderbilt University shows that middle managers' bad treatment of their employees is due to their bosses' bad treatment of them.Vanderbilt University“Middle managers’ treatment of employees reflects how bosses treat them,” says Ray Friedman, Brownlee O. Currey Professor of Management at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management.

Previous studies have found that high employee turnover lowers customer satisfaction. It’s also been previously established that the level of satisfaction with a supervisor is a reliable predictor of turnover intentions.

Middle managers need role models

The authors believe that role modeling is at the heart of the matter.

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“If an organization wishes to address issues related to line employees’ work attitudes, it should address behavior and work attitudes from the top down.” Friedman said. “The focus should not just be on employees and their managers, but also on the signals being sent by senior managers every day as they interact with their middle-level manager subordinates.”

In a study of 1,527 full-time employees at 94 hotels in the United States and Canada, Friedman and colleagues Ying Chen, assistant professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Tony Simons, associate professor at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, found that “middle managers’ satisfaction with their senior managers was related positively to line employees’ satisfaction with middle managers.”

So when middle managers don’t have good working relationships with their bosses, the effects are felt down the line with the employees the middle managers oversee, leading to some lower-level employees quitting.

“Despite the lack of direct contact between senior managers and line employees, senior managers can have a significant influence on those line employees,” Friedman said.

Women managers most impacted

The effect is even stronger for women managers, the study suggests.

“While the trickle-down effect is general, there may be subgroups especially influenced by the trickle-down dynamic and we have identified women middle managers as a group that is especially affected by the trickle-down effect,” Friedman said.

Although they theorize that the results of the study will apply to industries other than the hotel business, the study authors call for further studies to confirm that belief.

“The Gendered Trickle-down Effect: How Mid-level Managers’ Supervision Affects Line Employee’s Turnover Intentions” was published in September by Career Development International.