The Pile for January 4, 2010

The Pile is our weekly guide to what we’re reading to become better managers.

In recent installments, we've looked at some unexpected sources for management inspiration. This week, for a change, we kick off the new decade by considering some real academic management research.

amjlogoPublications such as The Academy of Management Journal are written by management academics for management academics and headlines like "A Within-Person Approach to Work Behavior and Performance: Concurrent and Lagged Citizenship-Counterproductivity Associations, and Dynamics Relationships with Affect and Overall Job Performance" suggest that it's not planning to break out of its niche anytime soon.

But sometimes even academic journals cover topics that touch managers in a deep way. Such an article is "Bosses' Perceptions of Family-Work Conflict and Women's Promotability: Glass Ceiling Effects." Despite the forbidding headline, Jenny M. Holzer, Sandy J. Wayne, and Grace Lemmon, all of the University of Illinois at Chicago, consider in detail one potential reason women still find a glass ceiling between them and top management positions at many institutions. Their study tests whether "managers view women as having more family-work conflict than men," even with other issues controlled for. No one who has worked in a company will be surprised at the answer, although as with all hunches it's reassuring to have some evidence behind it. Of course it's not news that work-family responsibilities may hold back women at work. Still, managers should keep in mind the key finding of the new research: manager perceptions (usually, male manager perceptions, although the study did not go deep in that area) play an important role, too. Most intriguing to us was what the researchers think their work says about programs that are intended to help employees:

"Our results raise concerns about company-sponsored programs that assist employees with managing family-work conflict ... employees who participate in these programs may signal to their managers that they have family demands and need assistance in balancing home and work domains. Participation in these company-sponsoted programs may reduce the likelihood that their managers view them as fitting with job and organization, consequently reducing their promotion opportunities."

This is not heartening news as we start a new year, but it does suggest that there might be a way out: if the problem is, in part, manager perceptions, then managers can solve the problem by changing perceptions.

Is your organization doing anything to make sure that asking for help doesn't put an employee in a double bind? Please share your stories in the comments below.