Physical distance determines how the bad behaviour of managers spreads to employees, research shows
Sitting next to your boss may have a negative impact on the quality of your work, a study suggests.
Researchers in the Netherlands have found that physical distance is a key factor in determining the extent to which bad behaviour of managers spreads to employees.
“If someone kicks a dog right in front of you, it’ll make you very mad,” said Gijs van Houwelingen, a researcher at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands.
“But if you hear about someone somewhere in the world kicking a dog, you probably won’t feel as mad about it.”
The research, published in the Journal of Management, sought to find out “how spatial distance between higher and lower management” affects the spread of behaviour and fair procedures in the work place.
A series of experiments were carried out to determine whether middle managers copy or deviate from their boss’s unfair treatment when they work further apart from one another.
In five studies the researchers asked people how their managers treated them, how psychologically close they felt to their manager, and how they treated their own employees.
Researchers also assessed the physical distance between study participants and their boss.
In one experiment, 150 undergraduate business students were asked to play the role of a middle manager with two subordinate employees and a boss.
Participants were told their boss was located in the same room or across campus.
They were also told that their boss would assign them either a fun and creative task with a cash bonus at the end, or a tedious task with no bonus. The participants could say which task they preferred, but their boss made the final decision.
The researchers asked the participants about their boss’s behavior, and then told them to decide how they would treat their own employees.
After analysing the results of this experiment and four others, researchers found that when participants were physically near their boss, they were more likely to imitate their misconduct and treat their subordinates unfairly.
They also found the same effect when someone felt psychologically close—when a participant identified with her boss, they were more likely to imitate his behavior as well.
In their final study, van Houwelingen and his team looked at the psychological impact on employees of physical closeness with their boss.
The study demonstrated that when someone works near their manager, they also feel psychologically closer to them, and the opposite was true at larger distances.
“We saw that the more distant someone is, they’re less likely to identify with their boss or describe themselves in relation to their boss,” van Houwelingen said.