The description of the study by the University of London and IMD was reported by Matthew Mortellaro who may be reached at

Published here, October 2013.


Musings Index

Should Team Members Show Appreciation to Their Leader?

There has been a lot of discussion lately on LinkedIn about project team leadership and the question How do you motivate your Project Team? It seems that leadership is equated to popularity. Well, that certainly helps so long as it does not become outright bribery. For example, Mary Lamb writes:

"The first rule is to take care of the basics. For instance, encourage open communication on the team. Also make sure you are available to talk and to listen to their concerns. Make sure that people's training needs are met. Make sure that your working environment is clean. Do all you can to make sure people can lead a balanced life, and are not working overtime over extensive periods. Taking care of basics is a way to make sure that people do not have reasons to complain.

In addition to the basics, look for other opportunities to increase morale and motivation. Consider ideas such as the following:

  • Talk about the business value of the work. If people think they are doing something important, they will feel better about their work.
  • Recognize people. Make sure that you recognize people for a job well done and praise people in front of the team.
  • Build camaraderie. Get the team together to share experiences, conduct cross training, share lunches, etc.
  • Give people more responsibility. People respond better when they have responsibility.
  • Have fun. Include pizza lunches (the team can chip in if your company will not pay) or take turns bringing in donuts for breakfast."

Certainly, public praise for valuable work well done is a no brainer. However, it really has to be warranted. Over reaction or too frequently offered and the impact soon wears off. Alternatively, the effects of a pizza lunch lasts a lot longer than a short public announcement, so long as the pizza does not become a regular expectation. Therefore, it works best for a special occasion such as a brainstorming session conducted over a meal break. Similarly, donuts over a coffee break work well.

A more formalized breakfast or luncheon at the end of the project to offset the feeling of anti-climax once the project is delivered is a good strategy - especially if the same team is to tackle the next project. But for a large team this can be expensive and the question becomes: "Who pays?" Having said all of that, should teams reciprocate with appreciation to their leader? Or perhaps more particularly, should team leaders expect appreciation from the members of their team?

Well, apparently not so, if we are to believe a recent study by a top-ranked business school called IMD.[1] According to the study: "Nice managers just aren't appreciated by employees. In fact, being caring is considered part of a boss' responsibilities." That's because workers take caring bosses for granted and don't see it as a favor that needs to be returned. It is now a part of the expectations of the modern work force. Therefore, the study suggests: "Managers and those with direct reports must manage their own expectations of employee responses accordingly."

That's bad news for good managers generally. Here are some quotes:

  • Lausanne, Switzerland - New research has warned that caring bosses who help employees with their personal and work problems shouldn't expect gratitude, loyalty and commitment in return.
  • Most managers believe offering emotional support will benefit their company. Yet most employees simply view such shows of kindness as part of their superiors' duties and have no intention of working any harder by way of saying thank-you. As a result, bosses who lend a helping hand must manage their own expectations, as they may find themselves frustrated with their staff's lack of appreciation.

Research co-author Professor Ginka Toegel said: "Managers and employees alike appreciate that controlling negative emotions can be important within an organization. But it seems there's a marked difference in how the two parties believe this sort of support should be perceived and how they think employees should respond to it. Managers tend to regard emotional support as above and beyond their responsibilities and therefore worthy of reciprocation in the form of greater commitment."

"For example, they might think an employee they have helped should have no qualms about working a little bit harder or staying a little bit later to meet a deadline. Unfortunately, employees just don't see it like that. They view emotional support as part and parcel of what their superiors do and are paid good money for. Consequently, the shows of gratitude may never arrive - and the negativity can end up perpetuated not by the employee but by the manager, who feels terribly let down."

These findings emerged from an in-depth study of workers at a successful recruiting agency that specializes in providing managers for the service sector. Dozens of employees took part in interviews and questionnaires to examine to whom they turned for emotional help and how they felt such support should be viewed. Around three quarters of lower-level workers and middle managers reported receiving support from their superiors - but not one expressed a feeling of personal debt.

One manager told how he devoted considerable time and energy to helping an employee deal with problems outside work - only for her to resign when she felt better. He said: "When she was turning the corner she said: 'I'm leaving.' I said: 'I'm happy for you, but I feel a bit let down.' She said: 'Oh, I didn't think about that.'" Another complained: "If I buy you a drink it's sort of expected that the next time around you'll buy me one."

"It's in every element of our culture - except the workplace." Suggested Professor Anand Narasimhan, also of IMD. "Some managers expressed social motives for offering support - 'Christian spirit', for example, or 'the right thing to do'. But even they expected they would gain something in return, perhaps in the form of increased recognition from those they helped and from their own superiors."

Professor Anand Narasimhan also observed: "Others expected purely practical gains, taking the view that helping to address employees' negative emotions would ultimately benefit sales and profits. Based on our findings, maybe the lesson for all concerned is to avoid unrealistic expectations - especially in an era when so much of economic life is built on services. Some manifestation of gratitude beyond that would be very nice, but there's no reason for bitterness or hand-wringing if it doesn't happen to materialize."

But even without any overt displays of loyalty and commitment, the fact is that project managers do benefit from a happy team. They benefit in terms of productivity and end results. After all, if a project is finished successfully, who gets management's accolade?

The project manager of course!

1. The study, which was carried out in collaboration with University College London, is published in the latest issue of the Academy of Management Journal (as at 8/14/13). IMD is a top-ranked business school, experts in developing global leaders through high-impact executive education delivered from their campus on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland and key locations worldwide. For more information, contact Matthew Mortellaro 41 21 618 0352
Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page