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Lead Your Team Managing

Build Relationships with Employees to Defeat Biased Perceptions

Build Relationships with Employees to Defeat Biased Perceptions
Credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Treating employees with dignity and respect has different results for bosses of different races and ethnicities, new research finds.

When white managers treat workers respectfully, those employees tend to work harder and help others more. However, positive treatment by an African-American or Hispanic boss doesn't have the same impact, according to a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.

If minority managers treat staff members politely and with dignity, it doesn't change the amount of good will and loyalty employees have. The positive treatment doesn't change what employees believe about how fair their minority bosses are, either.

"Our data indicate that when employees are asked to make assessments of overall fairness, employees who have supervisors from one race make judgments in ways that are inconsistent with employees who have supervisors from another race," the study's authors wrote.

The researchers said preconceived stereotypes may be to blame for the different reactions. [See Related Story: Unpredictable Bosses Worry Workers Most]

"Members of stigmatized groups may unknowingly set themselves up to be the target of stereotyping when they treat others with respect," the study's authors wrote. "One stereotype appears particularly relevant: the belief that stigmatized minorities are more deceitful than Caucasians."

Those deceitful stereotypes can lead employees to believe their minority bosses aren't being genuine when treating others respectfully, the researchers said.

"When supervisors act rudely or disrespectfully, the recipients of such treatment are likely to assume that supervisors genuinely feel derision toward them, as there is little to be gained socially by acting disrespectfully toward others when such feelings are not sincere," the study's authors wrote. "In contrast, supervisors who treat subordinates graciously may have ulterior motives ... given that individuals in work settings are known to sometimes mask their true feelings when their roles call for constant displays of respect for others."

For the study, researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, 165 employees and bosses from a variety of industries were surveyed on respect and fairness. Bosses were asked to rate how respectful they treated their subordinates, while employees were surveyed about how fair they thought their bosses were.

The research discovered that employees with minority bosses perceived less fairness than did their peers who worked for Caucasian bosses, but only when the workers were treated respectfully. The difference was not found when the employees thought their supervisors were disrespectful.

"Even when subordinates perceive that minority supervisors adhere to interpersonal justice rules to the same degree as ... Caucasian supervisors ... minority supervisors are still rated as less fair ... and, in turn, their subordinates are less willing to go above and beyond for them," the study's authors wrote.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked 296 business students to solve anagram puzzles that were supposedly graded by students from another university with whom the participants communicated by computer. The supervisory students, who actually didn't exist, were divided about equally between those with the Caucasian-sounding names of Todd and John, and those with the minority-sounding names of Tyrone and Juan.

There was only one communication from these "supervisors" to the students. One was a respectful, "I want you to know that I'm taking my job of grading your anagrams seriously," while the other was a rude response of, "My job as a leader is tougher than solving these easy anagrams. Your potential bonus is the last thing on my mind." The results were similar to those from the first experiment.

The study's authors said they believe that the stereotype of minority deceitfulness plays a key role in the results. Respectful minority supervisors not only miss out on extra efforts from subordinates that white bosses enjoy, but are also more likely to be undermined by those employees, the authors said.

The researchers suggested that employers take several steps to counteract these biased perceptions. Having supervisors physically located closer to their employees and making sure bosses have frequent one-on-one or small-group meetings with their workers will help make a supervisor's true characteristics more apparent, the researchers said. 

"As another alternative, routines that lead to relationship building ... for example, after-hours social activities or outings that involve partners and family members, may allow subordinates to see their supervisors in a different light," the study's authors wrote.

The study was authored by Cindy Zapata, an associate professor at Texas A&M University; Andrew Carton, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Joseph Liu, an assistant professor at California State University, Chico.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.