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March 25, 2020 | Research

Stressed-out boss? There’s a bright side, University of Toronto study shows

Julie McCarthy smiles, standing in a glass-walled walkway.

Stressed-out managers have a reputation for taking out their angst on those below them. But new research from the University of Toronto shows that managerial stress can also have benefits for subordinates and the businesses they work for.

The year-long study at a large men’s clothing retailer found that managers reporting high levels of stress were more likely to engage in “pro-social” behaviours with their employees. Specifically, managers feeling the pressure had a greater tendency to share pertinent knowledge and information with their team members and to spread rewards and recognition around more generously.

“Stress is actually quite complex, with both debilitating and performance-boosting effects”, said lead researcher Julie McCarthy, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resources at the University of Toronto Scarborough who is cross-appointed to the UofT’s Rotman School of Management.

“While the effects of stress on managers’ individual outcomes may be debilitative, they may engage in protective prosocial behaviors towards their employees”

Prof. McCarthy and her co-authors, Berrin Erdogan and Talya Bauer of Portland State University’s School of Business, wanted to go beyond studies focused on how workplace stress impacts individual performance. They were also interested in building on research showing that when an individual experiences threat, they respond by protecting others within their group. 

“This ‘tend and befriend’ behaviour hadn’t been closely examined in managerial contexts,” Prof. McCarthy said. “It was our contention that while the effects of stress on managers’ individual outcomes may be debilitative, such as experiencing personal exhaustion, that when it comes to their employees, managers may engage in protective prosocial behaviors towards those within their in-group.”

The study used a combination of managerial and employee surveys, along with job performance and employee turnover data – both typically difficult to get -- to trace the linkages between managerial perceptions of stress, behaviour and employee outcomes.

Stressed managers were more likely to acknowledge the contributions of their team members, resulting in higher job performance and lower turnover

Stressed managers were more likely to acknowledge the contributions of their team members, something that increased with their overall opinion of their employees’ competency levels. At the same time, stressed managers were more likely to share knowledge and information with their workers when the going got tough, regardless of their overall opinion of their employees’ competency levels.

The managers and their company benefited from these positive coping behaviours too. A stressed manager who was generous with giving credit resulted in higher job performance and lower turnover among their employees. Knowledge-sharing was linked to reduced employee turnover but had no significant impact on job performance.

“One of the primary messages from our work is that stress is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon. Past work has demonstrated that engaging in strategies to help reduce managerial stress is important, and will have notable positive implications for managers and organizations. Our research extends that work by demonstrating that stress also has a bright side with respect to managerial helping behaviors towards their employees,” said Prof. McCarthy. “Thus, our work highlights the importance of building and maintaining interpersonal relationships.”

The study appeared in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

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