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Almost everyone who works has a boss. It’s no secret that the quality of this relationship can have a big impact on the lives of supervisors and employees alike. The best bosses provide mentorship, training and support for their direct reports, facilitating professional growth and success for their team. But is it possible for employees, through their actions on the job, to impact their bosses as well? 

Soonjung Han
Soonjung Han

Soojung Han, a PhD candidate in the Fox Department of Human Resource Management, thought so. During her five years as the first woman engineer at a South Korean petrochemical company, she had an outstanding relationship with her boss, who gave her an unusual amount of autonomy, respect and trust. 

“I knew it was out of the ordinary from talking with my friends about their jobs, and I also knew it was important,” says Han. Every time her supervisor acknowledged her work or granted her additional responsibilities, she wanted to do an even better job. The experience had such a profound impact on her that when Han decided to pursue her PhD, she chose to focus her research on just this style of empowering leadership. Her personal connection to the subject is perhaps one reason her scholarship had been so exceptional.

Han and her colleagues’ recent paper, “Examining why employee proactive personality influences empowering leadership: The roles of cognition- and affect-based trust,” explores this territory. The research was published in May in the prestigious Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. A publication of that caliber is a rare achievement for someone who is still a student. This fall, Han assumed a faculty position at Cal State Los Angeles. 

Employee proactivity is often the catalyst for supervisors to grant workers greater autonomy and more responsibility, which increases employee engagement, productivity and job performance. Given the importance of these self-starters in the workplace, the proactive personality type is of great interest to researchers. However, to date, most of the research has focused on employee-centered outcomes, such as the relationship between proactive personality and career success. But the complex ways that an employee’s proactive style may affect his or her supervisor has been largely overlooked by scholars. That’s why Han decided to turn her attention to how these proactive employees affect their bosses. 

“The proactive personality type is defined as someone who makes changes in their environment, so we suspected that these employees might change their supervisors as well,” she says. She gathered more than 100 pairs of supervisors and employees and surveyed them to assess the qualities in question: proactive personality, empowering leadership and supervisor trust. Via questionnaires, employees rated their own proactive personality traits and their boss’s leadership style, while leaders scored their direct report’s level of trust in an employee. 

Han’s research examines two types of trust typical of work relationships: Cognition-based trust, which is based on logic and facts regarding an employee’s work responsibilities, and affect-based trust, which boils downs to whether or not a supervisor personally likes his or her direct report. 

To test their hypotheses, Han and her coauthors used statistical models, including hierarchical multiple regressions, to analyze the data. The team found that supervisors were more trusting of employees with proactive personalities and thus were more likely to empower them.

“It’s risky for leaders to let employees make decisions,” says Han. “What if they lack skills or, worse, what if they take advantage of less supervision and more autonomy?” 

Her work shows that, in spite of the risks, the payoff can be significant for an organization. Empowering leadership pays tangible dividends. “Previous research has supported that empowering leadership is associated with a host of positive outcomes, including increased psychological empowerment, task performance and citizenship behaviors for both individuals and teams,” says Han. She recommends that companies work on building both cognitive-based trust, through formal skill-building training, and affect-based trust, by taking the time to plan and invest in social events and team building. 

This specific research paper gives the edge to affect-based trust—likability. But Han cautions that the two types of trust are more interrelated than they may first appear. “Though it seems like affect-based trust shows a stronger effect, its impact on empowering leadership is less likely to occur when cognition-based trust is low,” says Han. “Therefore, both cognition- and affect- trust are important to induce leaders’ empowering behaviors. 

Her research also speaks to the importance of improved screening of prospective employees. It pays to be able to identify new hires who will consistently demonstrate proactive behaviors at work, not just say they will during a job interview. Han believes tools like personality tests and questionnaires that assess proactive traits specifically would be helpful as companies seek to fill their ranks with these go-getters. 

“As we can see, their proactive style benefits not only the employees themselves, but their supervisors, too,” says Han.

This article was originally published in On The Verge, the Fox School’s flagship research magazine. For more stories, visit www.fox.temple.edu/ontheverge.

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