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Workplace Support: The Double Edged Sword


Supportive relationships are crucial to recovery in mental health, but they are also integral in the workplace. Workplace support and professional relationships can have a major effect on employee performance and satisfaction. In particular, relationships with supervisors are one of the most influential factors on employee performance and turnover intentions.

Workplace support: always a good thing?

Tokens of workplace support from decision makers, such as providing feedback, benefits and staff bonuses, are generally thought of to be great employee motivators and to have positive effects. However, this is not always the case. Many factors can have a significant effect on how employees perceive support, and the actions they take in direct response. This includes the nature of the relationship between the beneficiary and employee, as well as the specific cognitive style of the employee. Inappropriate workplace support can negatively affect trust in supervisors and HR departments, relationships with co-workers, engagement, and overall performance.

We live in a chaotic business climate, where hierarchy and relationships are more blurred than ever. It is increasingly important to build appropriate relationships, and consider employees as individuals with distinct working styles. This is especially true when providing employee support, to avoid the ironic negative effect that it may have.

Employee thinking styles; a key link

Attributions are cognitive processes by which individuals explain causes of events and others’ behaviours in order to react appropriately to them. Different attribution styles may influence employee behaviour within the workplace and impact important outcomes such as productivity, commitment, and the nature of professional relationships.

In the workplace, people make attributions to explain the support they receive and why they receive it. These could be about their own successes and failures, as well as those of co-workers.

Employee Feedback: Always a Good Thing?

Consider an example where an employee receives a poor performance review. She might attribute this bad review to the fact that her supervisor was in a terrible mood on the day of the review. She does not consider the possibility that she may not have been meeting the expectations of her role. By not taking personal responsibility, she does not take the critiques on board, and may miss a crucial developmental opportunity. She may also end up resenting her supervisor, which could damage their relationship.

Many people find it difficult to make appropriate attributions about these workplace events. This can leave employees unsure whether feedback is due to their actual performance, or to an external factor outside of their control. Research finds that people who make such fuzzy attributions view work as unpredictable, more demanding, and less controllable. This could have serious negative implications on their development and future performance.

The Ironic Effect of Workplace Rewards

Like professional feedback, rewards are generally thought to motivate employees. They are also thought to improve relationships with the beneficiary, as it places them in a positive light. In fact, research has found that employees trust their supervisors more when they receive favours, support and rewards from them.

But this is not always the case. The way in which a reward is exchanged may influence the meaning that is taken from a reward. This affects how the beneficiary is perceived, and the relationship as a whole. For example, a favour from a supervisor may be considered unfair or as favouritism if the favour is based on a personal relationship with their employee.

Consider a situation where a supervisor rewards an employee with a bonus for their hard work. A number of reactions could be possible:

  1. The employee attributes the reward to his own success, recognises what he did to succeed, and continues to apply these strategies to succeed in the future. He appreciates the gesture from his supervisor, is grateful that his hard work was noticed, and his respect for his leader increases.
  2. He does not feel that he worked particularly hard this quarter, and does not understand why he has received this bonus. He fails to pinpoint what he did that led to this achievement, and cannot apply these actions in the future. He is sceptical of his supervisor and thinks that the bonus system is arbitrary.
  3. Another team member hears about this bonus and she assumes that the bonus was due to their closer working relationship. She finds this “favourist” behaviour unfair and biased, and loses faith that her supervisor will notice and reward her achievements. She becomes disengaged and demotivated to apply herself. She no longer trusts her supervisor, which damages their working relationship.

You can see how one seemingly innocent act of workplace support can lead to an array of explanations, actions, and behaviours from different employees – and how workplace support may not always lead to positive outcomes!

It is crucial for supervisors to build solid relationships with their employees, based on mutual trust and respect. Appropriate workplace support, presented in an open and transparent way, is a key determinant in the development of productive professional relationships.

So…What Can You Do?

1. Be Transparent:
Prevent misinterpretations of workplace support by taking the time to clearly explain any feedback or rewards given to an employee. Give concrete and explicit explanations. Directly relate the employee’s work performance and behaviours to their job requirements and expectations.

2. Clarify the Take-Aways:
When providing support, feedback or rewards, make sure the employee walks away with answers to the following questions: What did I do that was successful? What did I do that was not so successful? How did my behaviours impact the outcome? How did my behaviours relate to the feedback I was given? What should I continue doing? What can I change in the future?

3. Put Yourself in Their Shoes:
Consider how another person could interpret the situation. Adapt your approach to suit their individual style, so that they fully understand the message you are trying to convey.

4. Be Mindful:
Step back from the situation; examine your own thoughts and those of your employees. This can give you some distance and help you adapt your approach to suit the needs of the other person.

5. Question Your Approach:
Ask yourself the following questions: Am I providing enough support to all of my employees? Am I actively listening to them? Am I considering their point of view? Am I being clear enough? Will they know exactly what to take away from this?

A Final Note: Is There Room for Informal Support?

Most workplace support procedures should be structured so that feedback and rewards are clearly related to performance behaviours. This can ensure that employees fully understand the reasoning behind it, and regard the system as fair and justified.

However, there is still room in the workplace for giving which asks nothing in return – known as “disinterestedness” in the field of occupational psychology. Research finds that if all workplace support is framed as a direct exchange for employee performance, people begin to feel that they are nothing more than a cog in a wheel, where rewards are fuelled by ulterior motives. Employees can become disengaged, dissatisfied with their job and less committed to their organisation.

Research finds that “disinterested” workplace support is related to higher employee job satisfaction and organisational commitment. Examples of disinterested support could be benefits provided to employees to improve their wellbeing, or to improve the service of the company.

What is appropriate?

There is still a place for personal support in the workplace. As a leader, it is important to display individualised consideration to each of your employees. Try the following techniques: socialise with the team occasionally, be willing to have a laugh at work and learn about your employees’ lives (children’s names, spouses’ professions, hobbies).


Brockner, J., & Wiesenfeld, B. M. (1996). An integrative framework for explaining reactions to decisions: interactive effects of outcomes and procedures. Psychological bulletin, 120(2),189. Heider, F. (2013). The psychology of interpersonal relations. Psychology Press.

Martinez, A. D., Martinko, M. J., & Ferris, G. R. (2012). Fuzzy attribution styles. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19(1), 17-24.

Martinko, M. J., Harvey, P., & Douglas, S. C. (2007). The role, function, and contribution of attribution theory to leadership: A review. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(6), 561-585.

Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of management review, 20(3), 709-734.

Mignonac, K., & Richebé, N. (2013). ‘No strings attached?’: How attribution of disinterested support affects employee retention. Human Resource Management Journal, 23(1), 72-90.

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Cognacity use a cutting-edge risk management tool called Organisation Human Factor Benchmark (OHFB), which allows you to benchmark your company’s risk of stress, burnout and disengagement against established norms. The OHFG is supported by a predictive model that allows for the proactive management of risks for employees, teams and individuals. This allows targeted, evidence-based interventions to be implemented at both organisation or individual level.

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