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The Pain of Unanswered Support

Unanswered supervisor support can be harmful for employees' health and performance. Learn more about what it is and how to fix it.

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How does it feel when you ask for help and your supervisor steps in and helps? How do you feel when you’ve had a bad day at work and your coworker listens to your story? Now, what about the opposite? How does it feel when you ask for help and no one is there for you? Or, when you are upset after a hard meeting and no one will listen to your story? We can all think about examples of when we’ve been supported at work and when we’ve experienced a lack of support. Supervisors and other colleagues can all be a source of (or lack of) support. Today, we dive into interesting new research about a specific way to experience a lack of support – unanswered supervisor support.

What is Unanswered Supervisor Support?

Supervisor support is typically considered an important job resource. In other words, it’s something that can help you do your job more easily, effectively, and healthily. Without the support of your supervisor, you may struggle to do your job or face challenges that are hard to overcome. Support is often defined in the research as having two types – instrumental and emotional. Instrumental support is help on actual tasks, removing roadblocks, or solving a problem. Emotional support is providing empathy and care to show individuals that they are value, accepted, and heard. As you can imagine, having both of these types of support are important for a thriving workplace.

However, we know support is not always provided. Most research has looked at whether or not someone receives support. New research goes one step further to understand what happens when someone doesn’t get support after specifically asking for it. That’s unanswered supervisor support. An employee specifically asks a supervisor for help or support of some kind and they don’t receive it.

It’s so frustrating to not get the response you need!

Why is it Harmful?

Unanswered supervisor support can harm employees. While the research is still new, initial findings point to the need for supervisors to address requests for support. When employees don’t receive requested support, they feel more emotionally exhausted. They have higher intentions to leave their companies. Additionally, these employees perform worse on the job, are less likely to help others, and perceive their leaders as less effective. Plus, the relationship between the supervisor and employee is hurt in the process. In sum, when a supervisor receives a request for support, the act of not answering it can seriously hurt the employee.

Makes sense, right? Imagine a situation where you ask your boss to review a document before you send to a client. You talk to your boss about the challenges with that client and they barely listen to your concerns. You say you will send an email with the document for them to provide feedback. Once you send the email, you don’t hear anything back. Your boss never sends a reply. You forward it to them again right before the client deadline. Still, you hear nothing back.

Obviously, this situations is extremely frustrating! I know I would feel exhausted after this happened. I would definitely doubt my relationship with my boss and if they are a good leader. While the research is still new and we don’t fully understand what it looks like if this happens a lot, we can imagine the results would look even worse.

Employees that get support see their supervisors as more effective leaders.

What Can We Do?

The good news is there’s things we can do! Supervisors, for one, can respond to requests for support. If you can’t provide the support needed, it might be helpful to explain why. Also, share how you are trying to help even if it doesn’t fully happen. Provide emotional support if you can’t do what’s instrumental in the moment.

Organizations can also step up. Help your supervisors provide support to employees. Give them reasonable budgets to work with. Provide the resources necessary for supervisors to do their jobs well. And, if you can’t always provide all the resources needed, think about creative ways to support employees and supervisors in getting the work done.

Finally, employees can speak up (when possible). Maybe your supervisor doesn’t realize how much it sucks when they don’t give you the support you ask for. Can you give them that feedback? Can you share a situation where the support would have really helped? If your relationship is generally good, try to let them know why and when they’ve let you down. Hopefully, they can take the feedback and improve!

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