Monday, August 5, 2013

Work context and Ideal Employee image: Survey results

I am delighted to announce that the article describing my dissertation research project titled:

The ideal employee: Context and leaders’ implicit follower theories

was accepted for publication at the Leadership & Organization Development Journal.

What is this study about?

In a nutshell, we wanted to find out if a leader's perception of the work context shapes her preferences for ideal employee traits. We are delighted to have found clear links between managers' perception of certain environmental factors and their most desired employee traits.
Background: Most leaders and managers have an image of an (ideal) employee in mind. This image is like a summary of prototypical employee qualities which complement formal qualifications and skills.

The crux with this employee prototype is that managers may – unintentionally - rely more on it than on their real-life experiences with actual employees. This becomes an issue particularly during critical manager-employee interactions such as interviewing, hiring & firing, performance ratings etc. – in good ways and not so good ways.

Why is this relevant for organizations? 
In short, managers manage their people partly on the basis of their ideal employee image. This means that many personnel related decision processes such as performance reviews or hiring & firing are accompanied by managers' prototypical employee in mind. The knowledge that organizational context might shape this image and influence their expectations is relevant because it can explain alignment or misalignment between organizational strategy and personnel decisions.  

For example, imagine an organization whose top leaders want to create a culture of creative innovation, adaptability and flexibility to the market place. Their managers and supervisors, however, perceive the daily operations as highly bureaucratic and rule-oriented - seemingly killing creativity. In reaction to their perception of organizational processes, they developed an ‘ideal employee’ image which is - contrary to creative innovation - based on efficiency, routine work, strictly following directions and maintaining the status quo.

Are these manager going to hire highly creative individuals?

Are their performance reviews going to be about the type of innovation the top leaders have in mind?

Are they likely to support their employees in exploring new options?
(Maybe, but maybe not.)

Q & A:

In 2012 we asked 182 active leaders, managers and supervisors in several for-profit companies (e.g. Autoliv, MENLO Innovations, Zingermans’ and many more) in the USA to rate certain employee traits (e.g. hardworking, excited, loyal, productive, happy, reliable) and behaviors (expressing an emphasis on creative or efficiency-oriented innovation).

This is part of what we found:

      What are the qualities of an ‘Ideal Employee’?
Overall, an 'deal employee' is a loyal, reliable team player and shows behaviors that display both creativity and efficiency.

      Do leaders agree on the most critical and desirable traits and behaviors of employees?
No. The ‘ideal employee’ does not exist; leaders perceive their work environments differently and favor different employee qualities.

     What is more important in an employee: creativity or efficiency?
Depends! Older leaders prefer a balance of efficiency and creativity in employees, but managers of larger teams have an ideal employee image driven by efficiency. No differences, however, between female and male leaders.

      How does managers’ work context shape their view on an employee’s ideal qualities?
Managers who think their work context is rather formalized and rule-driven prefer efficient workers who are excited about their jobs, happy and outgoing.

Those who perceive the market conditions more as dynamic and fast-changing, on the other hand, like their employees to be creative, but also loyal, reliable team workers.

How can this knowledge serve organizations?

The organizations who participated in our study received a summary of their leaders’ “ideal employee profile” in terms of personal traits and work behaviors relating to creative or efficient innovation. They can now compare their leaders' 'ideal employee' profile with their strategic direction and see if their managers are aligned in their personnel decisions.  

Practical steps for how to manage leaders' 'ideal employee' image for a more aligned management of new and existing employees will be one additional focus in my dissertation.

For questions, comments and feedback please contact me at


Derler A. & Weibler J. (forthcoming). The ideal employee: Context and implicit follower theories. Leadership and Organization Development Journal.

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