Supervisors reported higher levels of energy, optimism and job satisfaction when their employees showed regular appreciation and gratitude, according to a recent study focused on managers at an American university.
In the study, published in November in the Journal of Management, researchers Sharon Sheridan, a professor at Clemson University, and Maureen L. Ambrose, a professor at the University of Central Florida, investigated whether supervisors feeling appreciated by subordinates positively affected their energy resources and their personal outcomes, such as life satisfaction and optimism, and work-related outcomes, such as job satisfaction.
Currently, most workplace research focuses on the needs and habits of subordinate employees rather than those of managers. Sheridan and Ambrose told The Academic Times that very little research has examined the relationship between resource depletion, or low energy, among supervisors and their energetic resources, or well-being.
The duo recruited approximately 80 non-faculty employees who held a supervisory role at one American university, and surveyed them using a daily diary field study in which the participants detailed their interactions with subordinates. Most people in the sample were in their 40s, 79.4% were Caucasian and 74.7% were female.
In the study, the researchers used the Conservation of Resources theory, known as COR, to analyze the participants. The theory was first introduced in 1989 by psychologist Stevan E. Hobfoll to measure behaviors and sense of self-esteem in response to stressful events.
According to COR theory, people are motivated to acquire, maintain and protect their external and internal resources when those resources are threatened. And one way people accumulate resources is by investing in relationships with others.
“Resources can be external things such as money and status that may assist individuals in attaining desired objects, or they can be internal resources such as self-esteem and energy that help people accomplish personal goals and cope with adversity,” Sheridan and Ambrose wrote in the study.
“There are lots of things that make people more resource-depleted,” Ambrose told The Academic Times, referring to low energy levels, “which might influence who is most likely to benefit from appreciation.”
Sheridan and Ambrose said that they expected that the supervisors’ core self-evaluations, meaning the amount that people inherently believe they are worthy, good and valuable, would moderate the indirect relationship between feeling appreciated and energy and life outcomes.
The team found that the appreciation felt and reported by the supervisors was resource-enhancing as well as an indirect influence on the supervisors’ life satisfaction, optimism, job satisfaction, withdrawal and helping behavior. Supervisors may withdraw by avoiding unpleasant aspects of their job and trying to minimize future resource losses, while their actions to help others are also influenced by their available resources, according to the researchers.
On days that managers felt more appreciation than was usual for them, for instance, they also reported higher levels of energy in the afternoon than they typically felt. The experiment assessed the supervisors’ perceptions of appreciation from their employees, but not the subordinates’ expressed gratitude.
Appreciation was measured with three items adapted from the Appreciation in Relationships scale: “My subordinates make sure I feel appreciated”; “My subordinates often tell me things they really like about me”; and “My subordinates often express their thanks when I do something nice, even if it’s really small."
The effects of appreciation felt by the supervisors also mattered most to those already experiencing resource loss, or lower levels of core self-evaluations. And appreciation may be particularly critical in jobs associated with high levels of burnout or emotional strain, Sheridan and Ambrose noted.
Though the study only examined a sample of supervisors in a university setting, the researchers said they believe the findings are applicable to other industries and workplaces. Building a climate for appreciation in all organizations and fostering a positive work environment could offset the negative effect of resource-depleting attributes of the workplace.
“We expected that appreciation would have a positive influence on supervisors,” Sheridan said. “But we also predicted that this wouldn’t necessarily have the same strong effect for all supervisors, and that there might be differences for certain supervisors.”
The researchers’ analysis found that a supervisor’s higher average levels of felt appreciation, relative to other managers, did not actually predict higher average levels of energy. Rather, the fluctuation in felt appreciation relative to each supervisor’s personal average — based on their daily responses over the course of the survey — was the most important indicator.
The project was first conceptualized in 2014 by Sheridan while she was working toward her Ph.D. at the University of Central Florida under Ambrose’s mentorship. Prior to this research on appreciation and gratitude, Ambrose spent 15 years studying mostly negative aspects of the workplace, including abusive supervision, workplace deviance and cheating.
Over the years, the project was reconceptualized and rewritten a few times as the duo uncovered new findings.
“Our thinking evolved, and we realized that what we think is really happening is that when people feel appreciated, this actually manifests as a boost to their energy resources. And that was something that we hadn’t fully fleshed out initially,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan and Ambrose said their finding that subordinates may help increase manager resources is key, given the negative consequences associated with supervisor resource depletion in the workplace.
More insight about factors that may enhance these resources is needed, they suggested, although they concluded that their results could motivate managers to continue to invest in their workplace relationships in order to create a positive cycle for both supervisors and subordinates.
The study, “My Cup Runneth Over: A Daily Study of the Energy Benefits for Supervisors Who Feel Appreciated by Their Subordinates,” was published in the Journal of Management on Nov. 4. Sharon Sheridan of Clemson University and Maureen L. Ambrose of the University of Central Florida served as co-authors.