When a boss gets territorial with employees who may leave

The workplace can be a complicated setting when it comes to manager-employee relationships. Things sometimes can get downright territorial, especially when a supervisor suspects one of their team is about ready to jump ship.

Peter Hom

The workplace can be a complicated setting when it comes to manager-employee relationships. Things sometimes can get downright territorial, especially when a supervisor suspects an employee is about ready to jump ship.

Do managers behave territorially toward employees and, if so, what’s with all the defensiveness?

Yes, according to Peter Hom, professor of management and entrepreneurship, who along with research colleagues investigated the territorial behaviors of managers that manifest with the threat of employee defection in a multi-phase study, titled “When Territoriality Meets Agency: An Exam of Employee Guarding as a Territorial Strategy,” published in the Journal of Management.

In defense of human resources

To better understand how and why managers behave territorially at the prospect of employee desertion, the researchers used the analogy of employee guarding, based on a romantic concept of mate guarding, to describe a specific type of territoriality — anticipatory defense — that occurs when supervisors suspect a subordinate is likely on the way out the door.

“Today there are high employment opportunities and more and more turnover, so companies are more aggressively competing for talent. We wanted to know what managers would do, besides relying on company lawyers to enforce agreements, if they felt an employee was leaving or being poached,” explains Hom.

We started to look at the literature of evolutionary psychology about mate guarding, a way human beings prevent mates from being poached, as an analogy to identify various behaviors managers may engage in if they feel employees are defecting to another employer.

Anticipatory defenses, the researchers explain, are actions used by individuals to maintain ownership of a resource by preventing or thwarting infringements before they succeed, using impassable and durable behaviors that prevent others from access or usage of a resource. For example, a business owner might install a computer password to prevent the cleaning crew from using it during the night.

To determine what managers would do if they suspect an employee is abandoning his or her role for another company, Hom and his colleagues developed a 74-item survey in the first phase of their study that was then condensed to a 40-item survey scale for behavioral validity, which allowed them to identify and measure the extent managers would exhibit territoriality.

Making a claim

They polled hundreds of managers about their actions when faced with an impending loss of an employee and discovered managers consistently engage in two forms of anticipatory defense tactics, persuasion and nurturing, to defend ownership claims over employees and thus limit organizational defection.

“For example, you might spy on an employee to see if they are searching for jobs on the internet, keep tabs on travel, etc., tactics to prevent them from leaving that apply to employee guarding,” says Hom.

Half of the time they claimed they would engage in territorial tactics if they felt employees were leaving them, such as claiming ‘I promise you I’ll be a better manager if you don’t leave me.’

The researchers also assessed whether feelings of psychological ownership — the ideas that employees belong to them — are associated with managers using anticipatory tactics to protect these claims.
 “Just as managers display ownership over tangible resources, such as equipment or intellectual property, what we found is that if a manager feels psychological ownership they are more likely to use guarding tactics if they perceive that employees are leaving,” says Hom.

Also, the researchers conducted an international study with a Fortune 100 manufacturing and service company to specifically learn how individual managers would behave if actual subordinates would leave, using statements about nurturing tactics, such as, “I went out of my way to be kind and caring,” or persuasion tactics such as, “I told him/her that another employer was not a good place to work,” to gauge anticipatory defenses.

As part of this trial phase, the researchers also assessed the cognitive ability of some of the managers’ individual employees with a short IQ test to better understand the link between the use of guarding tactics and the role of employee value.

“What we found in this phase is that if managers sensed an employee with a high IQ was threatening to leave, they would instigate guarding tactics, especially nurturing tactics, to stop them,” Hom adds.

Several dynamics are at play to maintain a defensive strategy over employees, according to the researchers. In the same way that lovers react to a mate who abandons the relationship for another love interest, a manager reacts to the threat of an employee who leaves in search of a new relationship with an alternative partner — a new firm — and one who will gain from a defector’s attention in the form of human capital.

As the researchers point out, humans are territorial by nature where feelings of ownership translate into behaviors designed to establish, communicate, maintain, and restore claims of ownership. In the case of managers, behaving territorial toward an employee who possibly might leave to join another organization is often legitimized in the workplace setting, and considered business as usual since they are often held accountable and rewarded for staff retention.

While managers can’t physically block an employee from quitting or even use technology as a defense mechanism to stop a departure, this study suggests that managers engage in employee guarding tactics more if they anticipate an employee is likely to defect.

The future of employee guarding

The next step in evaluating the concept of territoriality and employee guarding is to determine how well managers execute these tactics in retaining employees, according to Hom.

And just like a romantic relationship, perhaps it’s the timing that is critical for demonstrating effective behavior to stop a partner’s — or an employee’s — exit instead of what tactics are used to block their departure.

“Maybe they should have been doing this all along. You don’t become a better husband at the time your wife is threatening to leave you. You should have been a better husband before it gets to that point,” Hom explains. “We’re just learning that managers engage in these behaviors. It’s not clear whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe it’s inappropriate? It’s probably more important to understand the impact on employees and if it’s something to worry about.”

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