When supervisors want better performance from employees, there is an easy thing they can do: spend more time away from their own desks.

Dwayne Whitten

There is a direct link between supervisor work-family enrichment and subordinate performance, says new research from Dwayne Whitten, clinical assistant professor of information and operations management at Mays, and colleagues.

It works like this: when a supervisor has a healthy balance between work and life, it creates and promotes a more family-friendly work environment. This in turn leads to improved employee performance.

For some corporations, telling managers to spend less time in the office and more time at home seems counterintuitive. As one climbs the ranks of a company, increasing responsibility can mean less time for personal endeavors. But, says Whitten, in this case, time away from the office can actually lead to measurable gain for the whole team.

Whitten and colleagues surveyed 161 employees and 48 immediate supervisors from a broad range of organizations including manufacturing, professional services, education, and health services. Key in the research is that it did not look at CEOs, but rather middle managers. Immediate supervisors are frequently gatekeepers in setting the standards for acceptable behavior in a work group. If employees see their immediate boss flex her schedule to attend a child’s soccer game or a long lunch with a spouse, employees will feel more comfortable in modifying their schedules to be more harmonious with outside-of-work life.

When supervisors have a well-balanced work and family life, they pay it forward to their employees.
When supervisors have a well-balanced work and family life, they pay it forward to their employees.

In the study, nearly 90 percent of the supervisors were married and 77 percent had at least one child living at home; for subordinates, 71 percent were married and 59 percent had at least one child at home. The survey asked participants to rate statements such as, “My involvement in my work helps me acquire skills and this helps me be a better family member,” and “My involvement in my family puts me in a good mood and this helps me to be a better worker.” Other elements of the survey asked supervisors to rate employee performance, and employees to rate how family-supportive the organization is, what degree of schedule control they have, and a performance self-evaluation.

Researchers found that when subordinates feel they have greater schedule control, it has an impact on their job performance as evaluated by their supervisor and themselves. Researchers theorize that supervisors with high levels of work-family enrichment may become more tuned in to the work-family needs of their subordinates and may therefore respond by improving workplace family friendliness. The environment may occur through formal or informal policies that allow workers to take control over their work schedule (including location) or simply a management style that connotes a sense of family friendliness or concern about worker’ lives outside the office—such as showing concern for subordinate home-life situations, providing help during a personal emergency, or showing sympathy about family issues.

When supervisors have a well-balanced work and family life, they pay it forward to their employees. Then, supervisors more readily empathize with subordinates and provide support that leads to enrichment; this enrichment leads to greater engagement in the workplace on the part of the employees, as well as improved performance.

For more information

For more information contact Dwayne Whitten. His paper, “Pay it forward: The positive crossover effects of supervisor work-family enrichment,” created with colleagues D.S. Carlson, M. Ferguson, K.M. Kacmar, and J. Grzywacz, is forthcoming in Journal of Management.