Leaders Should Provide Helpful Support

The word "support" with letters held up by diverse hands.

Recent research has begun to unpack how attempts by leaders to support followers is not always successful. We recently published our second article in Journal of Business and Psychology where we distinguished what makes support helpful versus unhelpful. This project, led by Cheryl Gray, with team members Paul Spector, Janelle Wells, Shayla Bianchi, Claudia Ocana-Dominguez, Casey Stringer, Javier Sarmiento and Tiffany Butler, continues Cheryl’s work on her concept of unhelpful help. Whereas the earlier work showed how unhelpful help can be stressful, this new research showed how leaders should provide helpful support to minimize follower stress.

Help Is Not Always Helpful

Social support is important to employees in coping with stress and maintaining good performance. Leaders can provide support by clarifying expectations, demonstrating how things should be done, helping when a follower is struggling with a task, and lending a sympathetic ear. Support efforts, however, can go sideways if not done properly. Our earlier research on unhelpful help has shown that sometimes support attempts by leaders and others can fail to make things better and instead can add to a follower’s stress. There are several ways this can happen.

  • Tearing someone down when they make a mistake. Feedback is important, but sometimes leaders provide it in a way that is perceived as critical rather than constructive. Feedback when performance standards have not been met is most effective when it focuses on future improvement rather than past mistakes.
  • Imposing support on someone. Sometimes leaders see a follower struggling, so they force support on the follower, even if the follower says they have things under control. This can destroy follower confidence and sends the message that they aren’t trusted.
  • Not following through. This happens when a leader offers assistance but does a poor job on the task or fails to do it at all.
  • Doing the task for the follower. When a follower asks for help because they don’t know how to do something, the leader just takes over at does it for them.

Leaders Should Provide Helpful Support

The Gray team conducted two studies during the COVID19 crisis in 2020 to gain an understanding of follower experiences with helpful and unhelpful support. In the first study they asked for examples of helpful and unhelpful actions by leaders during the crisis. A content analysis of the responses identified 8 ways in which leaders can provide helpful support, and how the opposite actions can be examples of unhelpful help. Although the study was about adapting to a crisis, these approaches are valuable in more normal times. Some examples include the following.

  • Providing autonomy. During the COVID19 crisis followers needed flexibility to cope with new demands. Allowing freedom to structure work tasks and time made adjustment easier. Providing too much direction and structure was unhelpful.
  • Communicating. Keeping followers informed about important issues is important so they are aware of expectations, what needed to be done, and how to prioritize efforts. Lack of communication left followers with stressful uncertainty about what to do.
  • Keeping the mood positive. It can be helpful when leaders maintain a positive tone with optimistic and uplifting messages. Emails about dangers of COVID just added to anxiety about the pandemic.
  • Balancing workloads. Particularly during times of crisis, people can struggle to keep up with the work, and some followers can find their workloads increase whereas others are the opposite. Leaders should pay attention to workloads and workflows and be prepared to help followers prioritize so critical tasks are done first, and shift tasks so that those who are overloaded can get help from those who are underloaded.

A second study asked samples of engineers and nurses to complete a survey asking about the level of helpful support they received from leaders at work, and their burnout and physical health symptoms. Those who received helpful support experienced less burnout and fewer physical health symptoms, showing that providing helpful help can be important for managing stress.

The results of these studies show that leader support can be a two-edged sword that requires flexibility and sensitivity to the needs of followers. It should be kept in mind that all help isn’t created equal, and that care should be taken to avoid pitfalls. This line of research provides tips about what sorts of help to provide because leaders should provide helpful support.

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