In a recent study conducted by Estonian researchers, the authors explored the connection between supervision experience and the values held by supervisors. They emphasise that, more often than not, supervisory positions are filled by successful, creative and independent individuals who pursue their dreams.
Workers in supervisory roles manage and assess the work of their colleagues, making crucial decisions at various levels of the organisation. Supervision encompasses planning, delegating and explaining tasks to workers, as well as setting goals and deadlines, assessing the productivity of team members and providing feedback. Supervisors ensure the exchange of information between their subordinates and higher-level managers, maintaining work-related contacts with other units within and outside the organisation.
Supervision is a form of management, so it is important to keep staff morale high, promote internal cooperation skills and solve problems and conflicts, though these may often be indirect parts of management tasks.
Can we be confident that the people selected or appointed to supervisory positions are the ones best suited to lead based on their personal qualities? This is an important question, as books from various scientific fields, such as psychology, work economics and management, provide substantial evidence about the correlation between personal qualities, work-related indicators and broader societal accomplishments.
Personal qualities are closely tied to successful management, the organisation’s achievements, the attitude of one’s subordinates, work results and dominant supervision. The quality of management is also linked to economic outcomes on a broader scale. Companies with better management are more productive and experience faster growth. Lower-income countries tend to have lower-quality management, which contributes to their reduced economic growth.
An important aspect of managers and supervisors is their values or their main principles in life. In everyday discourse concerning workers and managers, people often talk about right and wrong values, which either support or hinder the achievement of the organisation’s goals. Through our study, we aimed to provide a more scientific and systematic framework for this discussion.
In answering these questions, we have primarily relied on Schwartz’s approach to the structure of people’s core values. Schwartz defines human values as the main principles in the life of an individual or another social unit. Values are defined as “what people care about,” guiding individuals in their choices between desirable and undesirable behaviours.
Schwartz differentiates between ten core values and four broader categories of values, or higher-order values. One of those values is openness to change, which includes sub-values such as self-direction and stimulation, which reflect readiness to embrace change. The second value is self-enhancement: power, achievement and hedonism. The third is conservation, which encompasses security, conformity and tradition. The fourth is self-transcendence, which includes benevolence and universalism.
What do the values determine?
In the study, we assumed that these values would have an impact on who would become managers or supervisors. For example, assuming all other conditions are the same, a person who highly values status and prestige is more likely to accept a managerial position compared to someone for whom societal status is less important. On the other hand, a person who prioritises security over achievements and refrains from taking risks is less likely to accept a managerial position compared to someone who makes the opposite choice.
We can also assume that certain values are more desirable than others in a worker who supervises others. For example, values such as comprehensiveness or universality and benevolence are likely more positively associated with quality of leadership. On the other hand, values such as power or social status and control over people carry the risk of authoritative behaviour.
Our study provided strong evidence from various countries that managerial positions can be occupied by both individuals with suitable and with unsuitable values for leadership, depending on the specific country and the values under consideration.
In our study, we aimed to determine whether workers in managerial and supervisory positions differ in their held values from other workers, especially in the types of values that can impact the quality and efficacy of leadership.
In our research, we utilised data from the European Social Survey’s 7th-9th rounds, which is a freely accessible and widely used source in social scientific research. Our focus was on the selection of workers for managerial and supervisory roles in nine countries in the Baltic Sea region, including four Nordic countries (Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark), three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Germany and Poland.
Despite their geographic and general cultural proximity to each other, these countries have varying economic and political histories, current levels of economic development and religious backgrounds. Additionally, the share of workers who supervise others as a percentage of the whole workforce differs among the countries. For example, in Germany, it is 35%, while in Lithuania, it is 12%.
The primary feature we were concerned with was whether the worker in question supervises other workers in their current position. If the person was unemployed, we asked whether they used to supervise others in their last position.
The control variables we used in the research from participants included sex, age, family status, education level, nationality and whether they are an immigrant or native resident in their country. Analysing different rounds of the European Social Survey and people of different ages together can be supported by the fact that, based on prior research, both lower- and higher-order values tend to remain largely consistent throughout a person’s life and are not significantly impacted by external shocks.
Leader = independent and successful
From most of the countries in the study, we observed a significant positive correlation between working in a managerial position and two specific values. Working in a managerial position could be predicted by achievements or personal success and the demonstration of skills and competence. Other values shown in these people were self-direction or the ability for independent thinking and acting, the ability to make decisions and creativity.
This could be beneficial: the pursuit of work-related accomplishments, creativity, critical thinking and the ability to act independently are certainly desirable traits for individuals who manage or supervise others. On the other hand, accomplishments and ambition also create a risk of authoritative behaviour, a concern that can be mitigated through organisational-level norms and stereotypes.
A higher risk of authoritative behaviour was observed in Estonia, Finland and Denmark. To a lesser extent, this tendency can also be seen in Norway and Germany, where there is evidence of individuals not favouring the association of managerial positions with power-related values. In other words, they do not care for social status, prestige or dominating and controlling others.
The values of benevolence and universality should enhance the quality of managing and supervising workers. However, in our empirical analysis, benevolence, or the willingness to help and care for close ones, is positively correlated with jobs related to managing and supervision only in Norway and Sweden among the researched countries.
Additionally, the value of universality, emphasising good care for other humans and nature, tolerance and equality are negatively correlated with leadership in Finland, Norway, Estonia and Germany, and are not correlated at all in other Baltic Sea region countries.
We also observed a correlation between the values of the supervisor and the number of subordinates as a measure for instructing workers and the level of oversight. We found that the values influencing the ease or difficulty of becoming a supervisor operate in essentially the same way, regardless of the number of supervised workers. This finding strengthens our results: our findings are not influenced by the choice of indicators used in the analysis.
Therefore, even though the results may vary depending on the countries analysed and the studied values, our study provides conclusive evidence for a positive correlation between certain personality traits and workers ending up in positions that entail the supervision and instruction of other workers. This implies that individuals possessing specific personality traits are more likely to assume managerial and supervisory roles.
We also found evidence of a negative selection, indicating that in connection with certain values, it is more likely for individuals to become leaders who may not be well-suited for such positions.
Our study confirms the conclusions of other scientific works suggesting that selecting managers and supervisory workers is a challenging task and achieving the desired results may not be easy. For instance, this concerns the topic of dominant supervision, which has increasingly come under debate. Therefore, it is necessary to critically evaluate the procedures for promoting workers and the criteria for selecting individuals for leadership positions in every organisation.
The research project on which this article is based was supported by the European Economic Area and Norwegian Financial Mechanisms Project “Economic Integration of the Nordic-Baltic Region through Labour, Innovation, Investments, and Trade – LIFT”