Researchers at Baylor University have established a link between stressed out workers, and managers who are religious about rulekeeping and corporate compliance
Red tape is a red flag at work.
Managers who strictly enforce all the rules may be inadvertently harming their employees’ well-being on the job. Indeed, a study released this week from Baylor University found a link between so-called “ethical managers” — those who are moral, but strictly wedded to bureaucratic processes, such as living and breathing compliance issues or cracking the whip over reams of paperwork — and workers who feel overly stressed on the job.
This employee stress can manifest itself in different ways — like with workers showing up late (due to disengagement and dread), feeling confused about how to handle tasks, or believing that their supervisors create unnecessary obstacles in the workflow. It can even result in increased staff turnover if left unchecked.
Lead researcher Matthew Quade emphasized that his findings are in no way suggestive that “ethical leadership” is a bad thing, but that the management styles of bosses who are both ethical, but too carried away about workplace compliance, can lead to potential detriments.
Indeed, one possible shortcoming is that such bosses can be unwittingly cultivating an overly stressed-out work environment.
So where, precisely, might these “ethical leaders” be going wrong?
“What can sometimes undermine the benefits of ethical leadership is an emphasis on compliance and rule enforcement more than a culture-shaping,” said Nicholas Pearce, professor of management and organizations at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, and CEO of executive advisory firm The Vocati Group.
“If I feel like my manager is here to police me and catch me up in a fault, as opposed to support, encourage, inspire, and equip, then it completely colors the nature of our relationship, and does not promote a sense of social support, which we know is tied to employee engagement,” Pearce went on to say.
“As an organization, you want people on your leadership team to be great leaders, to be ethical, and to have integrity,” said Meredith Wood, VP of content at Fundera, a New York-based online marketplace for small businesses loans. Wood said much of this research may pertain, in her view, to “very large organizations and the compliance they have in place. There’s a lot of red tape in a lot of places that probably isn’t as helpful as [companies] thought it would be; it can be inhibiting with creativity and productivity.”
As a manager herself, Wood believes one effective strategy for keeping employees incentivized, better able to respond to stress, and able to understand why red tape is in place, is for managers to be more transparent about why they make certain requests of their workers.
“I feel context is one of the most powerful things. If I just tell one of my employees to do something, that’s great — hopefully they’ll do it… [But] I need to give them context and understanding as to why something needs to be done, or why they are the way they are.”
But, she said, ethical leaders should trust their workers, and more often than not shouldn’t fear that they need policing on the job to behave ethically. If managers harbor such suspicions about their employees, Wood has a simple retort: “Why did you hire them [in the first place]?”
The results of Baylor’s study were gathered from surveying 609 US workers across 20 industries. The most significant groups of workers came from industries including construction, machinery, and homes (15.2% of respondents); utilities, energy, and extraction (14.8%); insurance (12.3%); government (11%); and food and beverage (7.4%); among others.
As Pearce concluded, here’s the bottom line: “Trying to create a culture of high integrity is not accomplished through the imposition of rules and thousand-page policy handbooks.”
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