Is your boss paying attention to you?

Probably not, he doesn't need to.

Above, the choice of the pronoun "he" was intentional. The article I reviewed for this post appeared in the American Psychologist and was focused primarily on the tendency of people in power to view their subordinates through stereotypes, rather than bothering to understand them as individuals. The assumption that the boss is a man is a stereotype.

When Princeton University Professor Susan Fiske wrote the article, her emphasis was on the fact that stereotypes function as a powerful tool for controlling people. To illustrate her research on the control function of stereotypes, she used work place examples of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

What I want to focus on here is what Dr. Fiske had to say about why those in power are not likely to pay attention and to get to know their subordinates as individuals, why they tend to lump them into categories.

The simple fact is that people pay attention to those who have power and control, those who can have an impact on their lives and effect their fate and their future. "Attention follows power" is how Professor Fiske described it.

In any organization, it is easy to observe that those at the bottom will spend a lot of time watching and thinking and talking about those at the top. The employee is motivated to construct a unique and detailed portrait of the manager because the employee wants to be able to predict what the leader might do in any situation. What the employee "knows" about the supervisor may or may not be accurate, but it is simply natural for a subordinate to have a clear picture in mind for the sake of survival.

On the other hand, because the leader does not necessarily depend on the subordinate for approval, success or promotion, "he" has a lot less riding on his ability to understand or appreciate what's going on with the followers. The "clueless" boss is a stereotype that appears to be grounded in reality.

There are two other reasons why those in power may not bother to form accurate and detailed impressions of those who are below them on the organizational hierarchy.

First, those in power simply have more people competing for their attention. At some point, the situation involves information overload (or TMI, "too much information"). The strain on their capacity to pay attention to everyone is also amplified by the fact that those in power are busy focusing their attention on those with even more power.

The other reason has to do with motivation. Those in power are typically motivated (if not expected) to control and dominate others. As noted, stereotyping can serve as a form of control. Those without power have even less power when they are perceived as relatively nameless and faceless. The research also indicates that leaders may be motivated to ignore others either because they are "power hungry" or because they have a precarious sense of their grip on power. When groups of employees are in revolt against leadership, those in power can be even more likely to tune out the noise.

The tendency of those in leadership positions to compress their perceptions of subordinates is not just "a guy thing." It is the result of powerful social structures, fundamental cognitive processes, and individual personality dynamics.

For the organization, the downside risk of oblivious or "clueless" leaders is that leaders do in fact depend on their employees in a variety of ways. The fate of the organization can be tied to the actions of individuals at the very bottom of the power structure. That is obviously the case when those on the bottom rungs have to interact with the public. Less obvious are the situations in which leadership fails to pay attention to how employees experience the work environment.

Every organization is concerned about work place stress, but too often, complaints are dismissed with convenient generalizations (e.g., "he's a whiner" or "it's just a personality conflict" or "she's just too sensitive"). Professor Fiske provided examples of companies losing major sexual harassment suits because they weren't paying attention. Perhaps more common are situations in which companies lose their investment in valuable employees because they either quit or suffer stress related disabilities. Employees who are unhappy and misunderstood are probably going to say bad things about the company before they leave, and even worse things afterwards. That's not a good thing from a PR standpoint.

What can an organization do? From my reading of the literature, it appears that the most useful way to motivate leaders to pay attention to the powerless is to highlight and amplify the sense of interdependence. When the employees are stake holders in the company or when the leader's success is dependent on the judgment of subordinates, those in power are more likely to invest energy in employee appreciation. When leaders are held to account for maintaining commitment and satisfaction among subordinates, they will suddenly have a reason to pay attention to those at the bottom.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.