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Boss' trust can lead to burnout in employees

ASU research shows that fear of failure can stress good workers

February 01, 2016

You’re a reliable employee, and your boss has faith in your ability to do a good job.

Great, right?

Not necessarily.

New research by an Arizona State University professor found that gaining the trust of your supervisor can be a double-edged sword, prompting good feelings but potentially leading to burnout.

Michael Baer, an assistant professor of management in the W. P. Carey School of Business, found that trusted employees not only can end up with more work, but they also become stressed by the higher expectations and the threat of failure. His study, of 200 bus drivers in London, was published in the December 2015 Academy of Management JournalBaer’s co-authors were Rashpal Dhensa-Kahlon, Aston University; Jason Colquitt and Jessica Rodell, University of Georgia; Ryan Outlaw, Indiana University, and David Long, College of William and Mary. The article is titled “Uneasy Lies the Head that Bears the Trust: The Effects of Feeling Trusted on Emotional Exhaustion.” (Photo by Cathy Chlarson/W. P. Carey School of Business).

Trustworthy employees lead to higher job performance for supervisors, Baer said, because bosses can focus on their jobs and give those workers more tasks.

But that trusting relationship doesn’t lead to higher performance in the employees.

So why doesn’t it?

Baer gave an example of a boss giving a trusted worker an important new project.

“At the time, you feel pride. ‘I must have done something right.’ But five minutes later, you realize, ‘I have a lot of work to do.’ And, ‘I’m on the hook.’ "

Baer said it comes down to the “conversation of resources” business theory. Resources such as free time, feeling valued and good pay make workers feel good. Loss of resources, such as a heavy workload cutting into free time, makes workers feel bad.

But beyond that, having resources threatened — such as worry about reputation — is draining because employees have to put effort into conserving them.

“The higher up the ladder you are, the more you worry about falling,” Baer said.

And burnout is bad because it leads to lower job performance, he said.

Bosses can keep this in mind.

“Every employee has a mixed workload, including mundane things that can be off-loaded. Maybe supervisors can’t decrease the workload, but they can change the mix,” Baer said.

“They can also reassure the worker: ‘I know I’m asking you to do something that is a little risky, but I’m here to help.’ "

And the employee?

“If you’re a trusted employee, you likely already have a good relationship with your boss. If you say, ‘I need assistance’ or ‘Can we change my work mix?’ they’re likely to say, 'Yes,' because they trust you have the best intentions.”

Baer will examine that in his next study: “If you do ask for help, could it lower the trust level?”

London bus drivers were ideal subjects because research has found that their jobs are very stressful.

“Management research often focuses on office workers, white-collar workers, mid-level managers, who have an opportunity to off-load work. Bus drivers are on their own. They don’t have co-worker support, and they have to keep a schedule while also providing good service,” he said.

“It’s a good environment to examine how adding a little more on top of their job affects those employees.

“And we also wanted to look at blue-collar worker experience, which is generally ignored by research.”

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