UO prof teaches that leadership should be exceptional and kind

Managing employees goes beyond growing a company’s bottom line, says Kate Zipay of the UO’s Lundquist College of Business. In her management course, she aims to foster a balance in which bosses build employee loyalty but also allow workers to embrace their outside lives.

“I think it’s important to ask what a compassionate workplace looks like,” said Zipay, who joined the UO as an assistant professor in fall 2018. “I teach not only what is leadership at work, but also what is exceptional and kind leadership.”

Early results of her research, conducted as a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, emerged this fall in the Academy of Management Journal. In two papers, she and her colleagues looked at the effect of employees’ venting about an unfair boss and whether the physical environmental setting of a workplace helps build the trust of new employees.

They found that when an upset employee turns to a colleague to let off steam about a questionable supervisor’s decision, performance declines. However, Zipay said, that effect is lessened if the listening colleague, instead of remaining passive, reframes the situation to help explain a manager’s seemingly unfair decision.

In the project, the researchers surveyed 170 London bus drivers and 25 supervisors about how an unfair scenario played out. A separate study involved pairs of college friends in an experimental setting in which they were assigned as either talkers or listeners. The talkers were told that their performance would determine the credit they received, but along the way the presenter, or manager, created unfair situations involving rudeness and negativity.

“When we set up questionable scenarios, there was a lot of employee venting,” Zipay said. “We’re told that talking about all these things, letting it off your chest, is good, based on social assumptions, but we found that many of these people were leaving their sessions more angry.”

When a situation is reframed by the listener, she said, an angry employee may come to understand that a supervisor’s action was a best-possible alternative or that maybe the boss was just having a bad day.

In the second paper, Zipay and colleagues collected the impressions of 165 Irish employees during their first 10 days of training with Big Four accounting firms. Again, they also created a similar scenario in a controlled laboratory setting with students.

“We argued that there are things you look for in an organization when you are new and are determining your trust,” Zipay said. “Does the place look normal and safe? How aesthetic is the place? A lot of research has focused on the benevolence and the integrity of a company. In addition, we found that the workplace environment also matters in building and earning trust.”

The two projects, she said, may benefit both the managers and employees of many companies.

“What are the small changes you can make as a manager or an employee to make everything better on a lot of levels?” she said. “It’s not just about having better performance but wanting to stay at an organization and appreciate it — and also enjoy their lives outside of it.”

For Zipay, who grew up near Tampa, Florida, the research drew from her early work experience. She went from a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and a master’s degree from the University of South Florida to an 80-plus-hours-a-week auditing job in a Big Four accounting firm in Chicago. She had interned there as an undergraduate student. She took on other functions such as recruiting new employees. The hours soon got to her.

Seeking a reset, she moved to Atlanta to work in the mayor’s office under a grant designed to help the city function more like a business. She found herself drawn to people-related issues, so when her role there ended she earned a doctorate in management — specifically organizational behavior — at the University of Georgia. She focused on organizational behavior.

“I love figuring out what makes people tick, what motivates people, the personality dynamics, sources of conflict and how people spend their time,” she said.

Zipay’s upper-level undergraduate course attempts to blend what makes for effective organizational leadership and how employees can manage their work and nonwork lives. To do that, she calls on positive organizational psychology.

“Hopefully, people can find a good balance,” she said. “What I’m trying to do is help people achieve better well-being, yet also perform well at work. We need to get away from the notion that work and nonwork are in opposition with each other. Experiences from both inside and outside the workplace are important for living holistic lives.”

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications