Ideas for Leaders #645

Bosses Who Treat Women Middle Managers Well Have Happier Frontline Employees

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Key Concept

Job satisfaction of frontline employees is often influenced by their relationship with their managers. New research, however, reveals that frontline employee job satisfaction can also depend on how well their managers work with their own bosses. This ‘trickle-down’ effect of relationships is especially potent with women middle managers.

Idea Summary

Job satisfaction is often linked to the quality of the working relationship between an employee and his or her supervisor. A poor relationship can lead to an increase in turnover intention — the desire or intent to leave — and eventually turnover itself: the employee quitting the job, sometimes even in the absence of a replacement job.

While the impact of employee/supervisor relationships on employee turnover has been closely studied, new research reveals the presence of a ‘trickle-down effect’ that begins at the next level up. According to the research, based on surveys of more than 1500 full-time employees at 94 hotels, poor working relationships between middle managers and their bosses can, in turn, negatively affect the relationship between middle managers and the employees reporting to them.

One can identify two reasons why a middle manager having difficulty with a superior or superiors will impact the job satisfaction of front-line employees. The first is the general working environment. Conflict between people hardly contribute to a positive working environment, and even if the conflicts between a middle manager and his or her boss may not have a direct impact on frontline employees, they are still working in a tension-filled environment.

Another reason that tensions at the next level impacts front-line employees is that people tend to emulate the attitudes and behaviours of those above them. This is known as ‘social learning.’ For example, middle managers who hope to move up the management ladder will observe what those who have already reached the higher rungs are doing, and try to adapt the same behaviour patterns. Unfortunately, this means that when middle managers see their bosses act aggressively toward them, these managers then emulate those bosses and start to act aggressively toward the frontline employees that they oversee.

Social learning can be positive as well as negative. Thus, when senior managers developed good working relationships with middle managers, not just treating them fairly but also taking the time to coach and mentor them, those middle managers in turn would be inspired to offer the same treatment to frontline employees, which translates into higher job satisfaction and higher rates of retention.

Importantly, this trickle-down impact does not apply equally to both male and female middle managers. Female middle managers, the research shows, are much more aware and influenced by the attitudes and behaviours of their senior managers, especially if the relationship is positive. As a result, women managers are more likely to reflect these attitudes and behaviours in their own actions with front-line employees.

Several factors explain why the trickle-down effect is more acute with middle managers. First, female managers continue to face barriers in their careers barriers— for example, having to fight harder for promotions — that male managers don’t face. In addition, women have smaller networks and less opportunities to find mentors than men. As a result, women are more likely than men to notice and remember the bosses who supported them, coached and mentored them or even simply treated them with unerring fairness. The impression that these bosses make will, in turn, inspire female middle managers to emulate them.

Business Application

Turnover of front-line employees is costly and hurts business performance. To reduce turnover, many businesses and organizations pay attention to the working relationship between these employees and their managers. Based on this research, however, companies and organizations that want to reduce front-line turnover should also focus on the relationship of managers and their bosses. Given the strength of the trickle-down effect when women middle managers are involved, this research emphasizes that retention efforts should pay attention to gender issues.

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Idea conceived

  • November 2014

Idea posted

  • March 2017

DOI number


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