The Manager and Social Support

Many recent graduates in business and public administration find themselves valued by their “bosses” because they bring new and “cutting-edge” ideas and skills to the organization.  For example, a young woman with strong analytical and methodological skills is hired into a rather conservative accounting-oriented budget office in a local government.

The new employee, let’s call her Susan, immediately feels pushed aside by the existing group.  There are “sniping” conversations in the hall, there are rumors and stories about Susan’s past work, and the older group generally leaves Susan out of anything that might be welcoming.

Susan tries to be friendly and goes out of her way to develop positive relationships with her colleagues.  She asks them to participate in her projects, she invites them to lunch, and she tries hard to keep a smile on her face – even when it’s tough.

But much of the situation is out of her control. Her manager gives her the choice assignments (knowing that she alone can get the specific work done).  He also asks her to make presentations to the City Council on her projects and joins the Council in praising her for her excellent work. That’s good, but it only fans the flames of jealousy in the office.

Susan faces a dilemma and is now considering leaving the organization just to find a more supportive environment in which to work.  As she considers her options, there are several things on her mind.

  • She might talk with her boss about the situation, though recognizing that there’s little that he can do. (On the other hand, if he doesn’t know what’s happening, there’s nothing he can do.)  See below for some options.
  • Susan could leave for greener pastures. At some point, the work environment can become simply too oppressive for someone to remain. Of course, Susan’s experience will help her sort out in advance the office culture in a new location.

These possibilities are often discussed, but here our interest is in what the manager or leader does in this situation?  One response might be that this is small potatoes – there are many more important things to do.  And to some extent that’s true. The manager might also take the position that, as an adult, Susan will simply have to work out these difficulties on her own. And to some extent that’s true as well.

But such a hands-off approach by the manager has its downsides as well. We talk a lot about the complexities of major changes or organizational transformations, but sometimes forget that small changes can be disruptive as well. If the manager sees the skill set and perspective that Susan brings to the organization as important for the future, he should be attentive to not only rewarding that new perspective (which seems to be happening), but also creating an environment in which that perspective and the people who hold it can flourish.

We know that the full engagement of people in organizations depends in significant part on the social support they find on the job.  Clearly, if Susan is not finding such support within her work group, then the manager should look for other opportunities to bring her into contact with others elsewhere in the organization that share her perspective.

This could be done through temporary assignments in other parts of the organization, through creating cross-functional team projects, or through leadership development programs aimed at the next generation of top managers in the city. (Note that all of these suggestions have a explicit purpose of contributing to the work of the city, but an implicit purpose of bringing together “the best and the brightest” to form a network of support for new ideas and perspectives.)

It’s always worth the manager’s time to consider the social support (or lack thereof) that employees like Susan are receiving.  Their continued engagement depends on it.