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A third of managers feel threatened by talented workers

Managers who feel threatened by subordinates can cause huge damage to the workplace out of insecurity, according to a new study

The findings, from a paper published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management by University of Salford Business School professor Kirk Chang and his research team, highlighted that managers often ostracise talented staff who they feel are a threat to their own position.

Just over a third of managers (34%) regarded competent subordinates as a challenge and developed feelings of insecurity. Researchers said that this damages worker morale and can lead to demotivation in teams and loss of talented staff.

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"Ostracism occurs within all types of organisations and affects both individuals and the organisations they work for. It damages a worker’s sense of wellbeing and reduces their commitment to their work and employer,” said Chang.

“This is particularly damaging as these staff are obviously talented and should be being nurtured by the places they work, but the fact that managers are threatened by them means they don’t feel part of the team."

Unlike observable behaviours (such as verbal or physical confrontation), which can be recorded and managed in line with HR policies, ostracism by managers towards their subordinates is more subtle and difficult to recognise, the research noted.

Ostracism can take various forms. The researchers gave the examples of employees being excluded from invitations to either meetings or social events, having their views ignored, being neglected from team conversations, or even noticing others go silent when they try to participate in a discussion.

“Those subordinates who feel ostracised by managers may show less commitment towards their managers, feel less confident and engage in negative gossip about their managers,” Chang added.

“Our research findings have affirmed the influence of competence-triggered ostracism, suggesting that organisations should take competence-triggered ostracism at least as seriously as other more obvious and explicit acts of mistreatment in the work environment.”

To combat the issue and avoid damage to businesses the researchers recommended a number of actions employers can take. These were: implementing mechanisms that encourage the identification of feelings of ostracism; a system of reporting to a third party, such as a union or staff rep; working with more than one manager to limit the potential for competence-triggered ostracism; and making accessible training and career development information widely available via internal communications to provide opportunities to progress competent subordinates.

The University of Salford Business School surveyed 130 managers.