Managers are often encouraged to develop and maintain good working relationships with employees, because doing so motivates stronger commitment and support, as well as better performance. But could bonding too strongly with employees backfire?

Our research, recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests that it could. If managers don’t establish appropriate expectations and timelines, their good working relationships could make employees less engaged and less responsive to them in the short term.

We based our research on what management scholars call “social exchange theory,” which suggests that managers and employees interact through repeated transactions, where each is offering and obtaining work-related resources. These interactions shape the quality of their relationship, which in turn influences how each behaves in future interactions. So exchanging resources like guidance, feedback, work effort, and rewards helps build strong relationships between managers and employees; and over time, this relationship becomes more about long-term mutual goals and benefits, rather than contractual, short-term obligations.

Ideally, when an employee feels that their manager is giving them more resources (more assignments, recognition, advice, etc.), they will return the “favor” immediately — they’ll be more engaged and work harder. However, we hypothesized that if they have strong positive relationships with their managers, they may not feel pressure to return a favor right away, and this might create some unexpected challenges for managers.

For example, imagine Noah, a marketing assistant who is close to his direct manager. We propose that Noah would feel less compelled than another assistant to prioritize helping his manager prepare for tomorrow’s meeting. Instead, he might continue focusing on a task with bigger implications: developing strategic plans for his team.

In a field study, we gathered data from 73 pairs of managers and employees working for an information technology company in Northern China. First we surveyed them to assess the overall quality of their relationship. Then we captured 600 one-on-one work interactions, across 10 workdays, by asking them to use a mobile phone survey platform to write about any face-to-face interactions they had with each other lasting more than two minutes. (These included meetings for job arrangements, feedback conversations, or general chats.) They reported what they received and contributed, whether they felt obligated to do more for the other person, and their level of work engagement right after the interaction. We controlled for age, gender, the time that they’ve worked together, and the quality of each interaction (i.e., “I am satisfied with the interaction”).

We found that how much managers and employees “give and take” fluctuated considerably across interactions. When managers gave more in a certain interaction, employees in general would immediately feel obligated to “repay” them by putting in more work effort and contributing more next time.

However, this wasn’t the case with employees who had stronger working relationships with their managers. They felt less obligated to return the favor right away and thus would be less engaged in work and often didn’t “return the favor” by contributing more in their next interaction. They seemed to take advantage of the good rapport they had with their boss, focusing less on making things feel balanced in the short term. Our findings are in line with earlier research on U.S. workers and managers, which found that strong work relationships make employees take longer to reciprocate favors in the short term.

The implication is that managers who maintain strong working relationships with employees may face an unexpected risk: the employees they’re closest to might hamper their efficiency by taking longer to fulfill immediate requests. To be clear, we’re not saying that managers should stop building strong relationships with employees. This is still important for getting employees to contribute their best work. If managers want to see more effort and responsiveness, they first need to “give” more resources to employees, for example through greater recognition, stronger empowerment, more meaningful work, and helpful guidance.

But our work suggests that leaders should also consider how to make even their strongest direct report relationships more effective. One takeaway is to set very clear expectations for when tasks should be completed. When requests are highly urgent, managers should ensure that all employees know to prioritize them.

Authors: Zhenyu Liao, Wu Liu, & Zhaoli Song