Why Bosses Matter
Researchers have spent a lot of time studying workplace peers and teams, but surprisingly little on the impact of supervisors, notes Daniel Akst of the Wall Street Journal:
“In a step toward filling this gap, a trio of business school professors studied a large firm whose workers perform technology-based services that are monitored by computer, providing ready productivity data.
In a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the professors found that bosses matter a lot, that they vary widely in quality, and that going from a worst decile boss to a best decile boss improves productivity as much as adding another worker to a nine-member team. Even more surprising, the boss’s main contribution isn’t made by motivating workers. Bosses make a difference by teaching skills that improve productivity.
Counter-intuitively, the study found, it pays to assign the best workers to the best bosses, because that results in the largest productivity gains.” (See the Akst story here.)
I took at look at the working paper itself to find out more. The paper notes that “the technology-based service workers” they studied “are constantly learning.” New products or processes are introduced over time, the researchers note, “so there is learning by workers and the potential for teaching by bosses on the job.” From what I can tell, the “skills that improve productivity” that are taught by the bosses in the study are particular to the work done by these employees, and not more general productivity skills.
But here is something interesting from the paper which we can all take away to use: The researchers make a very useful distinction between the “motivation” and the “teaching” bosses provide:
“Let us call that which persists ‘teaching’ and that which is only contemporaneous ‘motivation.’ Teaching is simply defined as that part of what bosses do that has some persistence in its effect on output. It might involve skill transfer or providing the worker with a good work ethic and good work habits. As long as it is persistent, we will think of this as a skill that was taught to the worker. Motivation is defined as that which affects performance today, but dies out immediately. A kind word that makes a worker push harder for an hour or two might be included in this kind of effect. Its persistence is limited to the day on which the boss inspires the worker to improve productivity.”
I find this to be an excellent reminder, in two ways: First, that motivation that is delivered to the individual has only a passing effect, as opposed to motivation evoked from the individual, which can happen through the teaching of skills.
And second, it’s a reminder that bosses—and parents, and all of us in some way—are teachers, too, and that we can make a real difference in the performance of the people for whom we have responsibility.