Skip-Level Leadership, Employee Voice, and Role Confusion in the Managerial Provision of Emotion Help in Group Foster Care

Guy Sack, M.A., Management Fellow (2013-2015)

Boston University Questrom School of Business

Department of Organizational Behavior



The amelioration of employees’ negative emotions through the managerial provision of emotion help has recently received increased attention (Toegel, Kilduff, & Anand, 2013), but the respective roles of managers and their subordinates in the emotion helping process remains a mystery. In order to better understand managers’ approaches to this issue, it is necessary to look at their interactions with their own supervisors (referred to as skip-level leaders) and the messages they receive from these skip-level leaders about managerial and subordinate roles in the emotion helping process.

This paper will only discuss the bottom three levels of the organization: front line staff, their managers, and their managers’ managers. The focus will be on managerial relationships with employees both above and below them in the organizational hierarchy. These will be referred to as the manager/skip-level leader relationship and the manager/subordinate relationship, respectively.

First, I will give an overview of emotion helping in caregiving organizations, explaining how group foster care provides an extreme example of the emotional requirements of employees of service organizations. Second, I will explain the importance of employee voice in the emotion helping process. Third, I will explore the different facets of the role confusion experienced by managers in relation to subordinate emotion helping. Lastly, I will examine associations between the manager/skip-level leader relationship and manager/subordinate relationships, in relation to both voice and role confusion in the emotion helping process.


Emotion Helping in Caregiving Organizations

Hochschild (1983) has demonstrated the requirement of emotional labor in positions that require large amounts of emotion regulation as part of the service provided in the job function. Emotional labor has been defined as “the process of regulating both feelings and expressions for the organizational goals” (Grandey, 2000: 97), and the concept has been applied across a number of different types of service organizations. However, the term is particularly applicable in group foster care settings, where management of high-risk youth behavior requires so much emotional labor that burnout has become an ever-increasing problem (Kahn, 1993).

William Kahn (1993) has outlined the importance of “flow” in caregiving organizations, of which group foster care is a prototypical example. He defines caregiving organizations as focusing on “administering or ministering to clients in ways that enable their ongoing growth and healing” (p. 539). Flow is characterized as a cascade of caregiving that descends from those higher in organizational status down to subordinates. Flow is key in these organizations because of the necessity of providing emotion help to subordinates, allowing them to deal with high emotional labor demands.


The Group Foster Care Organization

Imagine a group of 4 or 5 people, mostly in their twenties, sitting at a conference table, while 4 or 5 others leave the room to go home for the day.  Everyone wears matching grey polo shirts with the name of the foster care agency on them.  This is the shift change.  The unit supervisor is in charge.  The staff members, known as “mental health technicians,” are tasked with the care of youth ranging in age from 12 to 17.  The front line staff members are paid an hourly wage of $11.86 per hour; they are not trained specialists. Each mental health technician has to stay in ratio.  This means they cannot supervise more than 6 youth at one time.  Twelve youth live in each house; two staff per house; two houses.

Some of the kids are inside.  Some of them are outside.  Some of them always follow the rules, and some of them never do. It is not uncommon to see staff members lifting youth in the air and physically placing them where they want them to be. Kids run away.  They swear.  They fight.  They sneak into the playground to do drugs and have sex. They are in group foster care because they were removed from their families due to abuse or neglect. They have no one to care for them but paid staff.

But isn’t this staff monitoring them?  Aren’t there rules and consequences?  What are the goals of the organization in its interventions in unwanted youth behaviors?  Regardless of the answers to these questions, it is the front line staff, not the COO, and certainly not the CEO, who carry out the mission of the organization.  This is a staff that is underpaid, undertrained, under-retained, sleep-deprived, and under constant duress from lack of control.  If the kids do something wrong, who else is to blame? Emotion help is needed here.



What is the role of the subordinate in an emotion helping interaction? Fisher, Pillemer, and Amabile (working) have identified a need for help-seekers to behave in ways normally attributed to leaders, in order to create successful helping episodes. In the absence of proactive help-seeking, the help-giver receives no framing to guide the process, resulting in diagnostic incongruence: the help given is not the help needed.

The demonstration of leadership behaviors by employees necessitates voice. Detert and Burris (2007) define voice as “the discretionary provision of information intended to improve organizational functioning to someone inside an organization with the perceived authority to act, even though such information may challenge and upset the status quo of the organization and its power holders” (p. 869).

Detert and Trevino (2010) examined the relationship between employee voice and skip-level leadership, but this has not been studied in the context of emotion helping. However, their paper focused more on front line employee interactions with skip-level leaders than it did on messages given to managers by skip-level leaders. In addition, their study took place in a technology company, an organization in which the need for emotion helping is significantly lower than what is needed in a caregiving organization. For this reason, it makes sense that these authors did not touch on this process in relation to emotion help.

Walumbwa and Schaubroeck (2009) explored employee voice in relation to leader personality traits, and work group psychological safety. They found that the positive effects of the leader personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness on employee voice were mediated by psychological safety. Psychological safety has also been shown to increase employee engagement (Kahn, 1990), which is necessary for increasing voice in the emotion helping process. Engagement is defined in this work as an employee’s expression of “preferred self,” which is a necessity, if subordinates are to feel empowered to take emotion help from managers.


Voice as Taking Emotion Help

In an economy increasingly defined by service delivery, managers can no longer avoid the need to provide emotion help to subordinates, but just as important are subordinates’ readiness to take that emotion help. Taking help requires both seeking it and successfully receiving it. For most employees, this is easier said than done, especially in situations requiring emotion help. Adam Grant (2013) says there are givers and there are takers.  Those who act like givers benefit organizations in the long run; they seem enthusiastic about producing or serving.  But what about during emotion helping processes? Organizations should spend more time teaching employees to take emotion help well and often. The taking of emotion help requires voice.


Role Confusion in Managerial Provision of Emotion Help

The issue of role confusion among emotion helping managers is complicated by the discrepant viewpoints taken on the subject by managers versus their subordinates (Toegel, Kilduff, and Anand, 2013). This stems from differing perspectives as to whether or not emotion helping should be considered part of the managerial job function, that is whether they should be considered in-role or extra-role.

Supervisor’s organizational embodiment (SOE) is a useful concept to examine in exploring this role confusion. Eisenberger et al. (2010) defines SOE as the degree to which an employee perceives the behaviors of his or her supervisor as relating to the supervisor’s job function (that is, the behavior is enacted on behalf of the organization), as opposed to personal, extra-role motivations. Toegel, Kilduff, and Anand (2013) found that discrepant expectations between managers and their subordinates as to whether or not emotion helping was in-role or extra role led to a lack of reciprocation on the part of subordinates, in response to emotion help provided by managers. Specifically, they found that subordinates assumed emotion help to be in-role, whereas managers considered it to be extra-role. Due to this assumption, subordinates did not feel the need to “pay back” the help, leaving managers disappointed and let down, hurting the level of trust in the relationship.

However, an interesting aspect of their study was that, while managers articulated that emotion help was outside of their job function, they often gave instrumental reasons, tied to organizational goals and reward structures, for providing emotion help to their subordinates. If managers in this study were providing emotion help in order to accomplish organizational goals, then how could they consider those emotion helping episodes to have been extra-role?

In the context of the emotion helping process, managers clearly articulate a desire to engender relatively low levels of SOE in subordinates, so that these subordinates understand the need to reciprocate. Unfortunately, their explanations of instrumental reasons for providing emotion help demonstrate that these managers are, in fact, unclear as to how much organizational embodiment they attribute to themselves.


Manager/Skip-level Leader

Here, I will give special attention to both the messages communicated to managers by skip-level leaders about managers’ roles as emotion helpers to front line staff, as well as aspects of the manager/skip-level leader emotion helping relationship and the extent to which this does or does not mirror the manager/subordinate emotion helping relationship. I will also explore the messages communicated to managers by skip-level leaders in relation to subordinate voice.

Van Dyne and LePine (1998) found that employees tend to perceive both voice and helping to be extra-role behaviors. However, Kahn’s (1993) concept of flow suggests that, at least in the context of a caregiving organization, emotion helping should be viewed as an in-role behavior on the part of managers. In combination with this view, the work by Fisher, Pillemer, and Amabile (working) showing that helping will be unsuccessful if help-seekers do not drive the process, suggests that voice should also be viewed as an in-role behavior on the part of subordinates, in the context of managerial provision of emotion helping within a caregiving organization.

To date no researcher has explored the communications that take place between managers and skip-level leaders in relation to these perceptions. It would follow from Kahn’s (1990) and Walumbwa and Schaubroeck’s (2009) work that skip-level leaders should be encouraging managers to foster an environment of psychological safety, in order to increase their subordinate voice. Behaviors such as displaying fallibility and inviting participation have been shown to increase levels of psychological safety in work groups (Edmondson, 2012), so it would make sense that skip-level leaders, if they care about subordinate voice, will encourage these kinds of behaviors in their managers.

On the negative side, increasing levels of subordinate voice in emotion helping would serve to exacerbate the discrepant reciprocity outcomes described in Toegel, Kilduff, and Anand (2013). If subordinates feel free to ask for large amounts of emotion help, assuming that this is part of managers’ job functions, managers will feel that much more “unpaid” for help that the managers view as extra-role.

What is the solution to this problem? Clarify the role! Managers and their subordinates should be having conversations involving the subordinates level of SOE and whether or not this matches up with the manager’s own interpretation of the extent to which his emotion helping behavior represents extra-role behavior or is given on behalf of instrumental organizational goals. If the managers and their subordinates can agree on this, then subordinate voice can be high in the emotion helping process, without resulting in sad, unreciprocated managers.

A last question to ask involves the knowledge that most managers were once subordinates. Did these managers feel the same way regarding in-role perceptions of their previous managers’ emotion helping behavior? If this were the case, it would seem reasonable that managers may still have similar relationships with skip-level leaders as their subordinates have with them.


Research Question #1: How do skip-level leaders engage managers regarding employee voice in the emotion helping process?


Research Question # 2: To what extent does the emotion helping relationship between skip-level leaders and managers resemble the emotion helping relationships between those managers and their subordinates, in relation to perceptions of in-role vs. extra-role behavior?




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