Leah Thomas
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Developing healthy relationships are an important part of being a leader. When employees have good relationships with their bosses, they are more likely to be motivated, perform better, and work harder.

And the opposite is true: when employees do not have healthy relationships with their leaders, they are more likely to perform poorly and lose respect for the company and their boss.

Recently published research in the Journal of Management wanted to study the employee/boss relationships that didn’t fit into the commonly discussed good/bad archetypes.

“In reality, many relationships are both. Think about your love-hate relationships and your frenemies,” the researchers wrote.

“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.”

The researchers wanted to explore the potential positive or negative effects of having an ambivalent relationship with one’s boss.

They completed three studies amongst 952 people — two-thirds of whom were working adults in India, the UK, and America. The remainder of those surveyed were undergraduate students at a university in the UK.

“We asked them all to rate the degree to which they thought their relationship was ambivalent. 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 their performance,” the researchers wrote.

They discovered that employees who believed themselves to have a highly ambivalent relationship with their bosses actually performed worse in their positions (according to a rating by their boss) than those who believed their relationships to be less ambivalent.

These results were maintained even when the overall quality of the relationship was withheld from the analysis.

“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,” the researchers explained.

“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,” they continued.

So why do ambivalent relationships between a boss and a worker lead to negative job performances by employees?

The researchers believe it is due to the psychological concept “cognitive inconsistency,” where one is torn or conflicted about their feelings — the opposite of the term “cognitive consistency,” which says people seek consistency in their thoughts and actions and work to avoid inconsistency.

And when employees feel ambivalent, because they are unsure about their feelings, they become unsure about which actions to take — a conflicted emotion they find unpleasant, which, in turn, negatively affects their mental health and their job performance.

“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,” the researchers wrote.

But the researchers believe there are steps leaders can take to reduce this phenomenon.

Leaders can work to understand how employees view their individual relationships, they can try to have more positive than negative interactions with their employees, and they can help employees cope by being an occasional confidante when appropriate.

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