Research Brief

Why Unloved Workers Don’t Share Productivity Tips with the Boss

Concept of attachment theory, born in developmental psychology, applied to the workplace

Over the last 40 years, American business has pulled off what its owners surely regard as a nifty trick: wholesale elimination of layers of management in factories, warehouses, call centers and vast information processing facilities like insurance company back offices.

Where a ground-level manager once stood, there are now highly scripted procedures, the capture of performance data that ranks every worker by multiple factors and, egad, algorithms that adjust the whole operation to changes in demand or the supply chain.

But guess what? The impersonal — and let’s be honest, somewhat dehumanizing — nature of these optimized organizations means many workers are disinclined to share suggestions on how to make an operation more efficient. And, despite the unquestionable wisdom that comes from the corner office, ground-floor workers are often in the best position to spot ways to turn a seven-step procedure into a four-step task.

How, then, in this brave new world, to get workers to speak up?

The authors of research forthcoming in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes — University of Virginia’s Jieun Pai, UCLA Anderson’s Jennifer Whitson, Ohio State University’s Junha Kim and KAIST’s Sujin Lee — apply attachment theory to this problem, investigating how the very personal feelings workers have about their bosses affect willingness to share valuable information.

Looking at business efficiency from the point of view of people the authors describe as “low-powered workers” isn’t the norm in business research, which more frequently studies how top-down directives, applications of technology and capital can drive productivity.

Attachment Theory from Cradle to Career

Attachment theory was first established as a way to explain the bond (or lack thereof) between an infant and its primary caregiver. It has been expanded to explain adult relationships as well. At its core, whether we’re a newborn or in a long-term relationship, the theory is that we are our best selves when we feel nurtured and supported by the other person in a consequential relationship. When the relationship lacks that sense of security, anxiety takes over and clouds behavior.

And it’s not just about personal relationships. Pai, Whitson, Kim and Lee find that low-powered workers deploy the same security-seeking attachment with their boss. Yet from the get-go, that relationship has a fraught imbalance that inherently provokes anxiety. Does she like me? Am I in his good graces? Does she like him more than me?

Nearly 800 participants were sorted into a mindset of either high power (they were asked to recall an experience where they had power over someone else), low power (recall when someone had power over them) and a baseline condition that didn’t evoke any sense of power. Participants were then asked a series of questions to gauge their level of relationship anxiety. Participants fed the low-power mindset reported significantly higher “attachment anxiety” than those who recalled a situation where they had high power.

More Anxiety = Less Proactive Behavior

The researchers then explored whether heightened relationship anxiety with a manager experienced by low-powered workers might have a tangible impact on performance. They focused on the willingness to be proactive in identifying and correcting problems.

Nearly 600 participants were recruited on Amazon Mechanical Turk, and half were primed to recall an experience where a manager’s cold shoulder made them anxious.

You found your boss was reluctant to get as close as you would like and to depend on you. You wanted to know them more, but you somehow felt that they didn’t want it. You were unsure whether they liked you. You often worried that they didn’t really accept you.

All participants were then told a future research project was going to focus on worker proactivity. The participants were instructed to write down five examples of workplace proactivity as a way of focusing them on the topic.

They then were presented with seven statements on proactive behavior that they were told were written by previous participants run through the same exercise. Those seven statements were laced with grammatical errors or incorrect definitions and examples of proactive behavior. Participants were told they could comment on the statements.

The researchers scored the amount of feedback from all participants. Participants who had just gone through the exercise remembering their attachment anxiety with their boss made an average of 3.74 comments compared with 4.32 for the control group, a 13% difference. And the anxious group kept their comments “significantly shorter” than the control group.

Two additional experiments further established the existence of attachment anxiety in the low powered and its causal influence on lower proactive behavior.

The Business Case for Connecting to Low-Powered Direct Reports

The researchers then took those findings out for a spin in a field experiment at a Fortune 500 manufacturing company that employs technicians tasked with executing well-defined jobs. Among this low-power work base, offering up an innovative suggestion to improve one’s workflow would be considered proactive behavior.

The company had previously launched a tool to collect innovative suggestions from the more than 3,800 technicians (more than 90% male) across the firm’s regional facilities. In the first six months, 55 technicians offered suggestions.

The field study announced that the tool was being re-launched. The actual experiment was in the messaging on posters announcing the tool’s re-launch.

In one set of posters, workers who had previously submitted an idea were quoted about how a supportive manager made a difference in their willingness to propose an idea. It also included a call to action for anyone reading the poster to think about a supportive boss and then encouraged them to suggest an idea.

The control poster also featured workers who had submitted ideas, but their comments were focused on how their own personal skillset compelled them to make a suggestion.

This poster text plays up attachment to a superior.
The control poster that does nothing to address low-power attachment anxiety.

Workers who saw the poster designed to subconsciously implant a sense of close attachment to a supportive manager submitted 71 ideas during the four-day test period. In the pre-launch, six-month period, workers at those facilities had submitted 18 ideas.

Workers who saw the poster that didn’t explicitly call out a supportive relationship with a manager submitted 45 ideas, compared with 17 in the pre-text period.

“An effective manager can encourage proactive behavior from their subordinates by building a secure environment,” the authors write. Companies where a single supervisor oversees scores of workers may struggle to take advantage of this opportunity, and and at some organizations there is an undercurrent suggesting that ground-level workers don’t understand an operation well enough to offer improvements; many companies don’t solicit suggestions.

But it’s a little different for workplaces where human managers are close at hand. “Employees for whom proactive behaviors are an important part of the job should seek out individuals with whom they can establish a secure relationship,” the authors suggest.

If your manager isn’t enlightened, the authors suggest looking for other high-power figures in the organization to attach to, be it a peer or mentor.

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About the Research

Pai, J., Whitson, J. Kim, J., Lee, S. (2021).  A relational account of low power: The role of the attachment system in reduced proactivity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2021.06.003

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