Leadership | Mentoring & Coaching | Career Development

Cynics or optimists: what type of bosses make the best mentors?


Most of us have at one time or another worked for difficult or amazing bosses—some seem to harp on mistakes and flaws while others are better at bringing out potential. But what drives this type of behaviour? And how does it affect performance? These are some of the questions Jeffrey Yip seeks to answer in his study Leaders mentoring others: the effects of implicit followership theory on leader integrity and mentoring, published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management. His research was in collaboration with Dayna Herbert Walker, Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University, and supported by a fellowship grant from the Think2Perform Research Institute.

Management research has been concerned with how people’s judgments and decisions are limited by human biases and assumptions. We all rely on our own ‘implicit theories’ to make sense of new situations and knowledge. Implicit theories are assumptions and mental models that influence how people act and understand the world. These implicit assumptions about follower’s characteristics are known as implicit followership theories (IFTs).

Yip’s recently published study looks at how a leader’s IFT can affect their perceived integrity, mentoring, and engagement with direct reports. Specifically, Professor Yip looks at the differences in outcomes between two different IFTs:

  1. The optimistic view humans are motivated and capable (theory Y), or
  2. The cynical view that humans are lazy and self-interested (theory X)

It turns out that IFTs have measurable real-world impacts in the workplace. For example, if a leader adopts a cynical (theory X) mindset towards others, they may be more likely to attribute people’s actions to self-interest and as a result care less about others. This may result in follower resentment, decreased motivation, and minimal effort, which in turn reinforces the leader’s cynical beliefs. Clearly, this is not a desirable outcome and does not support effective mentorship by leaders. Conversely, leaders with an optimistic outlook are more likely to create an attractive work environment characterized by trust, autonomy and support.

These implicit theories have long been a topic in human resource management literature, but this study marks the first time that the behavioural/affective pathway and the consequences of a leader’s IFT have been studied. The results suggest that leaders who hold optimistic views of human nature are more relationally engaged and viewed as more effective mentors with higher perceived integrity than leaders who have cynical views.

The results suggest that leaders and organizations should pay attention to implicit assumptions instead of focusing on explicit behaviours. If you want to change leaders’ behaviour in the long term, then it’s imperative to focus on their IFTs.

“When teaching MBA leadership programs, I start with the mindset that drive effective and ineffective behavior,” Yip says. “Our assumptions shape our expectations, and our expectations then shape our behaviour. So, if you really want new behaviours to stick, your mindset must be aligned with them.”

This can be difficult to achieve, as implicit theories are difficult to disrupt. Although they can be shifted through a series of interventions, which is the goal of Professor Yip’s current research on listening and leadership development, through his research group – Listening Works.

“Theory X is a problem when people assume the worst of others, but we can’t just teach people to espouse theory Y.” Professor Yip continues “What we can do is to create experiences for people to see other people from a different perspective. Listening creates that experience. My research examines how listening can shift perspectives and how people develop more complex ways of listening. If we truly listen to see where we’re wrong, we can meaningfully shift our mindset over time.”

This is promising news, especially for those who have had cynical managers. If you’re wondering what you can do to be part of the solution, remember this quote from Professor Yip:

“Optimists listen for a way forward, even in the worst of times.”