Beware the ‘Hot and Cold’ Manager!

What can be done right now to improve employee well-being?

Katie Thomas – Consultant Analyst in Research and Development

This article is based on research conducted for a Master’s degree final project and was presented at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology Conference 2019.

What do we mean by the ‘hot and cold’ manager?

Relationships between employees and their managers are key predictors of wellbeing in work. Like the relationships we have with friends and partners, the quality of the relationships we have with our managers can vary.

Understandably, a poor relationship where you feel unsupported or not listened to could negatively affect your wellbeing whereas a secure relationship can protect and enhance wellbeing. Interestingly, it’s now becoming more commonly recognized that relationships aren’t simply good or bad but can simultaneously be a bit of both. Imagine your line manager is very friendly and chatty with you one day but on another they just don’t have the time for you.

Having someone consistently blow ’hot and cold’ at you like this could make you feel unsure and uncomfortable in work. If a friend was to treat you like this you may choose to just say goodbye but you probably don’t have as much choice to bid your boss farewell.

What’s more; if you can’t spot the ‘hot and cold’ manager, it might be time to ask, “Is it me?” and “How can I have a better impact on those around me?”

What are the new findings?

We explored the effect of those hot and cold, insecure working relationships on wellbeing. The more hot and cold a manager seems to be with an employee, the worse employee job satisfaction and life purpose were found to be, and the more intensely emotional and physical fatigue were felt. Some employees even expressed feeling that they were ‘rubbish’ and that they ‘hated getting back to work on Monday’ because of the sorry state of their working relationships.

I know it sounds bad…and it is… but it doesn’t need to be! The promising part of this research identified that employees and managers can both make small changes to ease the woes of hot and cold working relationships.

For employees:

Switching off from work – Being able to switch off from work can protect wellbeing as it controls harmful ruminations on poor work environments. There are different ways to switch off and it’s important to find something that works for you. For instance, others might swear by mindfulness meditation and you can’t imagine anything worse. Walking your dog or cooking your favorite meal can help you to unwind and mentally get away from exhausting work relationships.

Active problem-solving – Lessening the importance that people place on the relationship they have with their manager can also protect wellbeing. Practicing active problem solving can help to do just this. It could take the form of bullet-pointing potential solutions for issues in work or seeking out a peer mentor rather than having to go straight to the manager who makes you feel uncomfortable. When you rely less on the person who treats you poorly, that relationship has less impact on you, protecting your wellbeing.

For managers and leadership coaches:

Above and beyond how good or bad a working relationship was, the key predictor of wellbeing was consistency! The more hot and cold treatment a person received, the less certain they felt of themselves and the worse impact this had on wellbeing.

So, the big question is ‘how consistent are you’? How aware are you of the impact you have in your working relationships? Consistency can be achieved in small ways such as maintaining regular catch ups with reports and resisting temptation to let them slide. It can be helpful to consider the small consistencies you can bring to your everyday work.

Awareness and self-reflection are a great starting point. Using a personality questionnaire could help you to better understand your behavioral styles and the kind of impact you might have on those around you. If you’re a leadership coach, it’s also apparent that it can be beneficial to discuss the consistency of a person’s behavior as well as the behavior itself during a session.

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