Do you see your boss in the mirror?

Jul 11 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

They say that animal lovers end up looking like their pets. But now it seems that looking like – and being like – your boss can be pretty significant for your career, too.

A study by academics at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and Washington's American and George Washington universities has concluded that how much you rate you boss – and how much your boss rates you – depends on how alike you are.

The study of 165 middle and upper-level managers employed in city governments in the eastern US related the race (African-American and Caucasian) and gender of these managers to their opinions of the effectiveness of their supervisors.

What it was looking for was "self-continuity", or the degree to which an individual identifies with others who are demographically similar to themselves.

It found that those who were high in self-continuity strongly identified with demographically similar people, while the opposite was true in those who were low in self-continuity.

In other words, males and Caucasians – members of the demographic groups most traditionally in high positions within business – were more commonly high on self-continuity and therefore had a more favourable opinion of white and male bosses than did others.

On the other hand, African-American and women employees had less favourable opinions of African-American and female bosses and so were more likely to dissociate themselves from this demographic.

Instead, it found they might prefer to forge positive self-images (and career paths) by identifying with superiors outside their own demographic.

While demographic similarities did not necessarily play a direct role in how employees assessed their supervisors or in how supervisors assessed employees, indirectly the results were "quite compelling," said report co-author Dr Christine M Riordan of Texas Christian University.

Those who were able to identify with a superior's demographic found it often had a positive effect on their how their supervisor rated them. "We think that self continuity enhances the respondents' self image and reinforces their membership in the group," said Riordan.

"To employees who are sensitive to being in a demographic group that they think of as being perceived as lower in status, demographic similarities with their supervisors can negatively influence how they view their supervisors' effectiveness as leaders," she added.

"That is, minority direct reports do not always think of their demographically similar supervisor as being effective. This tendency is highly variable among minority individuals, depending on their desire to strengthen, ignore or reject a sense of demographic self-continuity," she continued.

What companies needed to be aware of was that employees who exhibited a strong desire to be with demographically similar to others could be less receptive to diverse employee-supervisor relationships as well as diversity initiatives. Employers therefore needed to be encouraging and training employees and supervisors to emphasise work activities that employees had in common, such as project goals or other mutual interests, rather than demographics to build meaningful work relationships.

"Such activities force all parties to look beyond surface-level characteristics such as demographic similarities or dissimilarities," said Riordan.

At a practical level this could mean programmes that helped to foster greater social involvement across various demographic groups.

Similarly, putting in place and actively monitoring policies, practices, training and communication that reduced perceptions of inequality or differential status among various demographic groups, she recommended.