Bossing the relationship

Scholar offers insights to bolster communications between leaders and led. Cat Davies reports

September 16, 2010

If the thought of starting a new term facing the boss' daily quirks triggers a palpable rise in blood pressure, then you might benefit from a dose of leadership theory.

An academic will explain his ideas about workplace relationships in a session titled "Getting On With The Boss: Why The Relationship With Your Manager Is So Important" at the British Science Festival at Aston University this week.

Robin Martin, professor of social and organisational psychology at Aston Business School, researches ways of improving leadership. His aim is to reduce workplace stress, enhance wellbeing and increase levels of satisfaction, commitment and effectiveness among employees.

A better relationship between managers and managed can also boost the chances of promotion.

Rather than a top-down system of government, Professor Martin sees leadership as a relationship between individuals where preferences and biases can arise, determined by perceived similarities and differences between leaders and led.

Although his model is applicable across a range of organisations and cultures, he has specifically observed some of the distinctive features of the academic workplace.

"Jobs can vary in terms of the interdependence between leader and follower. There are some roles where you see your supervisor every day. In other fields, like academia, you may not see your head of department for weeks or months on end because you are working independently," he explained.

"Ironically, the quality of the relationship is even more important in these cases, since autonomous working situations can quite easily be abused. Individuals need clear guidelines about what's expected."

If an academic does not see his or her boss on a daily or weekly basis, the relationship can be more difficult to manage, he said, "because it has to be nurtured infrequently or at a distance".

"In these situations, staff are basing their judgement of similarity on a much smaller amount of information - and often on surface details such as gender, age or race. We may be more biased in remote situations because we are judging more superficial information," he warned.

Other features of academic life, such as multiple bosses on multiple projects, can also complicate matters, so Professor Martin offers advice on smoothing rocky relationships. Prejudice is often part of the problem. He remembers a time when, after weeks of struggling with the frostiness of a female colleague, she revealed that he bore more than a passing resemblance to her ex-husband.

"Biases should be discussed openly with colleagues for a clearer view of the situation. Understanding and recognition is a first step," he said.

Professor Martin also urged employees to focus on objective factors, such as research output, when assessing applicants during the recruitment process.

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