Managing your manager

If something is amiss in a company, the boss would like to know about it. How do you make sure that your employees come talk to you?
By Lucia Grijpink / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

On 28 January, 1986, millions of people witnessed the explosion of the Challenger shuttle, 73 seconds after it launched. Six NASA astronauts and a teacher who was going to teach school children from space, died.

It was later discovered that rubber rings had started leaking due to the low temperatures. Even worse, the rings’ supplier had warned this could happen, but nobody had listened. How did this happen?

This is exactly what Ran Zhang wonders. He works as a lecturer of HR Management at Stenden University in Leeuwarden. The past few years, he has been researching ‘upward influence’: the way employers are influenced by their employees. Wouldn’t it have been great if the supplier’s warning had reached the bosses at NASA?

‘Why were they doing that?’

‘I’ve been fascinated by upward influence for years’, says Zhang. ‘I remember how surprised I was when a colleague laughed loudly at a joke his employer had made, when it wasn’t even that funny. One time another colleague was being inordinately deferential to his boss. Why were they doing that?’

His research among employees and employers at the Stenden Hotel in Leeuwarden shows there are two kinds of employees. Some people like to improve how they work. They have ‘learning goals’. Others want to show how well they are doing in relation to other people. They have ‘demonstration goals’.

‘Take for example students preparing for an exam. Students with learning goals always show up to class, prepare their work meticulously and are always on schedule. Students with demonstration goals just want to earn as many credits as possible. They don’t do very much during the semester and only show up for the mandatory seminars, and two weeks before the exam they hit the library in order to ace the exam’, Zhang says.

Dare to confront

Most people tend to be a mix of these two types, which according to Zhang is a good thing. Because when people want to be both the best and care about their work, they are more likely to talk to their boss about any problems.

‘Managers can use that’, says Zhang. ‘You have to help your employees develop both goals. Managers can stimulate those employees who are only interested in outperforming others to also consider how they can improve themselves relative to their own past. Employees with only mastery goals could stand to be a little more competitive.’

However, finding a perfect balance does not necessarily mean that all your employees dare to confront you. Zhang discovered an important condition. People low on the rung in a department simply don’t raise any issues. That means that bosses have to stimulate their employees. ‘You can invite them for a personal conversation, for example, to talk about their ideas’, says Zhang.

Aggressive approach

Employees themselves also benefit from a balance in their goals. Let’s say you want a salary increase. Typical climbers are often much too aggressive in their negotiation techniques: ‘I won’t leave this office until you’ve given me a ten percent pay rise.’

But if you’ve achieved balance between your learning and demonstration goals, you either come up with rational arguments – ‘I’ve worked here for ten years and landed some of the biggest clients’ – or you propose an exchange – ‘If you give me a ten percent raise I will bake you a carrot cake every Monday.’ This is just as effective as the aggressive approach, but it leaves the relationship between the employer and employee intact.

What are Ran Zhang’s own motivations? He chuckles. ‘I’m a mix, but I skew towards the demonstration goals.’ This means that, in accordance with his own practical suggestions, he will pay more intention to the substance of his research.


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