Leaders, Coworkers and Social Support

March 27, 2011 by Ken Nowack

“I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous — everyone hasn’t met me yet.”

 Rodney Dangerfield



Being a leader can be a lonely place. The higher you go in an organization the least likely you are to have colleagues and reports provide you with honest and candid feedback about your behavior. How many of us of heard the refrain, “another great meeting Lou” only to wander out the door muttering to ourselves just how much a waste a time the meeting actually was.

Leaders also seem to be high in self-delusion (no research has looked at how many leaders still have “imaginary friends”). In a recent study reported in Harvard Business Review, CEOs seem to have unrealistically optimistic perceptions about several aspects of their top team’s performance. In this study, CEOs reported providing significantly higher effective direction for their team or believed that team members are less interested in promoting themselves than caring more about team interests than their direct reports1.

What exactly do relationships at work do for talent?  Do close relationships with one’s boss and colleagues have any impact on engagement and productivity? Current research suggest strong relationships with one’s boss and direct reports are associated with:

  1. Less inflammation measured as C-Reactive Protein2.
  2. Enhanced immunity3.
  3. Less burnout in professional working women–lower depersonalization and higher personal accomplishment4.
  4. Decreased depression5.
  5. Enhanced job satisfaction6.
  6. Greater longevity and less illness during our life based on meta-analytics reviews of over 148 studies7.

In fact a recent survey of over 15,670 employees in diverse industries by Career Systems International, the third most important retention driver was having strong relationships and working with great people (42%). Only having stimulating/exciting work (48%) and having an opportunity to grow and develop (42.9%) were rated higher.

Despite the challenges and problems in both conceptualizing social support, social integration and networking by researchers and practitioners, having people in our lives to use for emotional, functional and intellectual support appears to be a protective factor in health and one that simultaneously contributes to increase productivity.

We took a look at some social support research results from our stress and health risk assessment called StressScan by analyzing availability, utility and satisfaction of social support by gender. We tested gender differences by using a statistical test called analysis of variance (ANOVA) and found some interesting differences in gender with a sample of almost 800 professional working men and women

  1. In general, women reported greater availability and use of their social support network (supervisor/boss, colleagues/co-workers, partner, family and friends) then their male counterparts (all p’s < .01).
  2. Women reported using their boss or supervisor significantly more frequently then men which was surprising as research suggests that more successful women indicate that mentoring was less important to their career advancement than did less successful women.
  3. Women reported significantly more availability, use and satisfaction with their friends compared to males. They also reported greater availability and use of their partners, families and friends (all p’s < .01) which is consistent to what Shelly Taylor, Ph.D. has suggested as part of the female “tend and befriend” response to coping with work and life stress8.

In our statistical analysis of social support for professional men and women we were able to determine the relative amount of dissatisfaction with specific sources of social support. Men and women (N= 785) rated they were either “Not at All” or only “Slightly” satisfied with the following sources to meet their emotional and instrumental support needs:

  • Boss/Supervisor 31.0%
  • Colleagues/Co-Workers 16.8%
  • Family 13.0%
  • Partners/Significant Others 9.9%
  • Friends 8.3%

Having a strong social support network and being satisfied appears to be associated with the level of stress and well-being. Men and women in our sample who reported greater overall social support also reported significantly stronger correlations with:

  • Lower Stress ( r= .35, p < .01)
  • Greater Resilience/Hardiness (r= .47, p < .01)
  • Greater Happiness (r= .58, p < .01)

Maybe the Youngbloods were right after all….”C’mon people now, Smile on your brother, Ev’rybody get together, Try and love one another right now, Right now…” Right now! Be well……

  1. Rosen, R. & Adair, F. (2007). CEOs Misperceive Top Team’s Performance. Harvard Business Review, September 2007 []
  2. Suarez, E. (2004). C Reactive Protein Is Associated With Psychological Risk Factors of Cardiovascular Disease in Apparently Healthy Adults. Psychosomatic Medicine 66:684-690 []
  3. Schwartz, G.E., Schwartz, J.I., Nowack, K.M., & Eichling, P.S. (1992). Changes in perceived stress and social support over time are related to changes in immune function. University of Arizona and Canyon Ranch. Unpublished manuscript []
  4. Nowack, K. and Pentkowski, A. (1994). Lifestyle habits, substance use, and predictors of job burnout in professional working women. Work and Stress, 8, 19-35 []
  5. Stroetzer, U. et al. (2006).  Problematic interpersonal relationships at work and depression: A Swedish prospective cohort study.  Journal of Occupational Health, 51, 144-151 []
  6. Simon, L., Judge, T., & Halvorsen-Ganepola, M. (2010).  In good company?  A multi-level investigation of the effects of coworker relationships on well-being.  Journal of Vocational Behavior, 76, 534-546 []
  7. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316 []
  8. Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. Behavioral Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight” Psychological Review, 107(3):41-429 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Leadership Development, Relate, Wellness

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