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

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

In response to evolving customer demands, many companies are adopting competitive strategies that emphasize innovation in products, processes, and technologies. These strategies, in turn, have enhanced the demand for workplace learning because employees need to absorb new skills and routines to perform their jobs (Salas et Cannon-Bowers, 2001).

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 et Torrington, 1998; McGovern et al., 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 et Hutchinson, 2007)

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

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 et Wageman, 2005).

We draw on the training literature to test a multilevel model of coaching in relationship to other organizational factors that influence performance. Although many have called for this type of approach to training, few studies have actually adopted it (Blanchard et Thacker, 2007; Kozlowski et Salas, 1997; Salas et Cannon-Bowers, 2001).

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 et al., 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 et al., 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 et Boswell, 2002; Wright et 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 et Salas, 1997)

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 et al., 1992), and support from supervisors and coworkers (Smith-Jentsch, Salas et Brannick, 2001).

(Kozlowski et Salas, 1997) The “systems” concept captures the idea that there are moderating or synergistic effects—rather than independent or additive effects—operating between different factors in the organization.

Coaching

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

Group Management Practices: Direct and Synergistic Effects

One argument draws on group process theory, which emphasizes the role of effective communication and coordination (Argote et 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. Although research has demonstrated a significant relationship between better performance and group-based forms of work (Cohen et Bailey, 1997; Guzzo et Dickson, 1996; Kozlowski et Bell, 2003) and group incentives (Hansen, 1997; Weitzman et 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)

Individualized work settings (as in this study) would not necessarily benefit from group-based approaches. However, 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. For example, in a cross-level study of call center workers, Batt (1999) found that objective sales performance was higher for workers in self- directed groups compared to those in traditionally supervised groups, in part because the former solved technical problems more effectively.

Similarly, studies of “communities of practice” (Brown et Duguid, 1991; Lave et Wenger, 1991) describe how learning occurs between peers in the context of every day work. Kunda (1992) found that the performance of technicians working individually in remote sites depended importantly on regular informal meetings among technicians to exchange ideas and share results.

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

Technical Processes: Direct and Synergistic Effects

Hypothesis 3a: Process automation will be positively related to performance, such that when process automation is higher, individuals will have higher levels of performance. Hypothesis 3b: Process automation will moderate the relationship between coaching and performance. Specifically, the positive relationship between coaching and performance will be lower when process automation is higher.

Hypothesis 3a: Process automation will be positively related to performance, such that when process automation is higher, individuals will have higher levels of performance. Supported

Hypothesis 3b: Process automation will moderate the relationship between coaching and performance. Specifically, the positive relationship between coaching and performance will be lower when process automation is higher. Supported

Hypothesis 4a: Technical process changes will be negatively related to individual performance in the period when they are initially implemented such that when processes change more frequently, individuals will demonstrate lower levels of performance. Not supported

Hypothesis 4b: Technical process changes will moderate the relationship between coaching and performance. Specifically, the relationship between coaching and performance will be lower when processes change more frequently. Supported

Discussion

Theoretical Implications

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. The HR literature has noted the importance of decentralized HR systems (Purcell et Hutchinson, 2007) and has called for mesolevel studies and studies of implementation (Wright et Boswell, 2002; Wright et Nishii, 2009), but little research attention has focused on the roles of supervisors and line managers. 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.

Practical Implications

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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