How Supervisors Influence Performance: A Multilevel Study of Coaching and Group Management in Technology-Mediated Services

Liu, Xiangmin and Batt, Rosemary (2010). How Supervisors Influence Performance: A Multilevel Study of Coaching and Group Management in Technology-Mediated Services. Articles & Chapters, Paper 347.

Along with the increased emphasis on workplace learning, evidence also is accumulating that organizations are devolving human resource management (HR) responsibilities to supervisors and line managers in order to enhance employee performance (Hall & Torrington, 1998; McGovern, Gratton, Hope-Hailey, Stiles, & Truss, 1997).

This decentralization of tasks broadens the core responsibilities of first-line supervision—from traditional duties of monitoring and administration to a set of performance-oriented tasks that identify, assess, and develop the competencies of subordinates and align their performance with the strategic goals of the organization (Hales, 2005; Purcell & Hutchinson, 2007).

They have primary responsibility for coaching and managing the working relationships among employees in their work groups.

They can, for example, create a work environment that enhances group processes of communication, motivates cooperation and learning (Argote & McGrath, 1993).

We refer to practices that enhance working relationships among peers as “group management practices.” Our assumption is that these practices may be effective for work that is individualized or loosely organized into groups—they do not depend on high levels of interdependence in teams (Hackman, 1987; Hackman & Wageman, 2005).

We draw on the strategic HR management literature to conceptualize “other organizational factors” in terms of the role of HR management. That literature has shown that HR practices, in combination, may lead to better performance than if they are implemented in isolation (Combs, Liu, Hall, & Ketchen, 2006).

In particular, the HR literature has identified three dimensions of the HR system that enhance performance: investment in training, work designed to allow employees to interact and develop their skills and problem-solving abilities, and incentives to motivate effort (Appelbaum, Bailey, Berg, & Kalleberg, 2000; Batt, 2002; Delery, 1998).

Although the strategic HR literature has found significant relationships between these dimensions and performance at the organizational level (Combs et al., 2006), some have called for studies that illuminate how these relationships are effectively implemented at lower levels of the organization (Wright & Boswell, 2002; Wright & Nishii, 2009).

We theorize that supervisory variation in individual coaching and group management practices has both direct and synergistic effects on individual performance improvement. The synergies depend on whether these practices are congruent, or consistent, among themselves (Kozlowski& Salas, 1997).

Theory and Hypotheses

One series of studies has conceptualized the work environment as influencing individual perceptions and beliefs, such as training motivation (Quinones, 1995), opportunities to perform (Ford, Quinones, Sego, & Sorra, 1992), and support from supervisors and coworkers (Smith-Jentsch, Salas, & Brannick, 2001).


Although coaching focuses on specific, short-term performance improvements, mentoring provides individuals with psychological support and social resources in order to reach long-term career goals.

Tutoring typically involves an expert who passes on domain-specific knowledge to novices. In coaching, however, supervisors may not necessarily be domain experts but may help individuals gain greater competence and overcome barriers to performance.

Examples of coaching activities include helping employees set specific goals, providing constructive feedback on specific tasks, offering resources and suggestions to adopt new techniques, and helping employees understand the broader goals of the organization (Ellinger, Ellinger, & Keller, 2003).

Coaching may affect individual performance through three mechanisms: the acquisition of job-related knowledge and skills, the enhancement of motivation and effort, and process of social learning.

Coaching is an effective source of skill acquisition because supervisors can observe specific employee behaviors and performance and provide constructive feedback and guidelines for improvement (Heslin et al., 2006).

Proximity between the learning task during coaching and its practical application at work reduces the loss associated with transfer oftraining, which is problematic for structured, off-site training activities (Baldwin & Ford, 1988).

emerging perspectives on socially constructed learning, or dialogical approaches, stress that knowledge and learning are socially embedded in power relationships and cultural values (Burke, Scheuer, & Meredith, 2007; Holman, 2000).

Coaching consists of a sequence of ongoing conversations and actions that promote continuous exchange of experience, feedback, and encouragement (Heslin et al., 2006).

Some studies have suggested a positive relationship between coaching and job performance (Agarwal et al., 2009; Ellinger et al., 2003); but empirical evidence remains weak because these studies only used perceptual measures and estimated performance differences between individuals as a result of differential treatments of coaching.

Hypothesis 1: The amount of supervisor coaching an employee receives is positively related to individual performance over time.

Group Management Practices: Direct and Synergistic Effects

Beyond individual coaching activities, supervisors may influence performance by how they shape the working relationships among the employees they oversee.

One approach is to create an environment of individual competition based on the assumption that such an environment motivates all employees to perform better than they otherwise would because they want to outperform their peers. Alternatively, supervisors may adopt group management practices that foster a cooperative environment based on the assumption that group interaction provides social support or opportunities for mutual learning that enhances the performance of all employees.

Much recent theory and empirical work has supported the performance benefits of group- based work and incentives over individualized ones.

One argument draws on group process theory, which emphasizes the role of effective communication and coordination (Argote & McGrath, 1993). If supervisors implement practices that enhance social interactions and information sharing, then they create an environment in which workers are able and motivated to solve problems together, and this group interaction leads to better individual performance.

Supervisors also may emphasize team-based work or group rewards, both of which are particularly effective where monitoring and performance metrics are visible to all workers (Sewell, 1998)

Although research has demonstrated a significant relationship between better performance and group-based forms of work (Cohen & Bailey, 1997; Guzzo & Dickson, 1996; Kozlowski & Bell, 2003) and group incentives (Hansen, 1997; Weitzman & Kruse, 1990), most of the literature has viewed task interdependence as a critical condition for the benefits of group processes to be realized (Hackman, 1987).

if group activities or peer collaborations are sources of learning or motivation, then they may be effective tools for performance improvement even where task interdependence is low.

Smith-Jentsch, Salas, and Brannick (2001) showed that team leader supportive attitudes moderated the relationship between training and behavioral outcomes in a simulated laboratory setting.

Pairing with experienced peers, for example, may encourage, remind, and reinforce the learning goals and behaviors of trainees, whereas the use of group incentives may encourage group members to look out for the interests of others and support performance improvement of the whole group (DeMatteo, Eby, & Sundstrom, 1998).

Hypothesis 2a: Where supervisors make greater use of group management practices, individuals will demonstrate higher levels of performance.
Partially supported

Hypothesis 2b: Group management practices will moderate the relationship between coaching and performance. Specifically, the positive relationship between coaching and performance trajectories will be stronger where group management practices are more frequently used.
Partially supported


The study also has implications for strategic HR management and the recent interest in the changing role of supervisors. We showed how supervisors influence performance via three dimensions of HR management— investment in training, group projects, and group incentives—providing an example of how the HR—performance link, which has been found to hold at the organizational level, operates among supervisors, work groups, and individual employees.

This study indicates that it is not just the existence of formal HR policies but the informal implementation of practices by line managers that matter.

The findings in this study strengthen the scientific basis for the role of supervisors in performance improvement and suggest the need for more HR studies that examine the sets of management practices that shape performance at this level of the organization.

Beyond the economic implications of coaching, this study illustrates the practical importance of group management practices. With other variables held constant, the use of team projects led to a 0.89 second reduction in call handling time, which means a 4.4% increase in performance, or labor savings of $180 every month. In terms of group incentives, a one standard deviation increase was related to 5.0% increase in performance, or $207 in monthly labor savings.

Although some have speculated that first-line supervisors might lose their importance due to the flattening of organizational structures and the use of information technologies (e.g., Kerr, Hill, & Broedling, 1986), this study adds to the emerging evidence that supervisors have a central role to play in functional HR practices such as employee development and performance management (Gittell, 2001; Hales, 2005; McGovern et al., 1997; Purcell & Hutchinson, 2007). In the process of implementing formal organizational policies, supervisors interpret and enact these policies in different ways. This suggests that management has an important interest in designing effective training and management systems for frontline supervisors as well.

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