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Why Workers Defer to Coworkers More Than Their Boss

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The structure of the modern workforce is changing, but maybe not for the better.

A recent study found that employees tend to be much more deferential to their peers than their bosses. By that, researchers mean that employees hedge, soften their language, and use disclaimers more around colleagues of the same rank than they do with their bosses. Lead researcher Alison R. Fragale says that one possible explanation is that when there is no clear hierarchy, employees want to avoid conflict.

"We wanted to look at how hierarchies affect the way people communicate," Fragale, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, told the Wall Street Journal. "Peer-to-peer relationship have a lot of ambiguity because there's no structure."

Fragale cites a common MBA case study example: When five strangers are thrown together randomly and assigned to complete a task, no one wants to take charge, for fear that they'll be disliked or punished for their assertiveness. Instead, people hedge and say things like, "Maybe we could try doing it this way, what do you think?" and "I'm not sure this is a good idea." Consequently, people waste time dancing around issues and nothing gets done. By contrast, Fragale says, we don't behave that way with our bosses, because there's already a clearly defined hierarchy. "We don't need to use our language to signal the respect for the relationship," Fragale said.

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This doesn't mean that employees are rude or disrespectful to their bosses; instead, because they already know where they stand in relation to their superiors, they don't have to signal that they're not trying to compete with them the way they might with a coworker in a similar position.

Self-managed teams are gaining in popularity, but this study suggests that it's still helpful to have at least one person who can break a tie when it comes to making decisions at work.

What do you think of this study? Do you agree or disagree? Tweet @Shape_Magazine and let us know!


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