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Welcome! This week, we’re continuing on with leadership’s impact on learning. However, our focus is a bit more precise, since today’s articles focus exclusively on customer-facing employees. The questions we explore this week are:

  • Does leader/employee relationship impact employee learning orientation?
  • What, how, and when do employees learn from supervisors’ customer incivility?

To the articles!

Leadership Promotes Learning Orientation

Considering much of our learning comes from social interaction (and it really is a lot!), studies have recently been focusing on learning from leadership. The following article sought to better understand the relationship between leadership and learning orientation. Pulling from social learning theory, researchers suggested that leader-member exchange (LMX) and perceptions of marketing capabilities would impact employee learning orientation. Further, since learning orientation drives employees to improve, the authors explored if this increased learning orientation actually brought about improved job performance (Hiu Kan Wong, Xinru Wu, Whitla, & Stanley Snell, 2022).

To break down what these terms mean regarding the study, employees’ “learning orientation” references the “level of motivation to learn and work and improve their job performance” (Hiu Kan Wong et al., 2022). When looking at employees’ perception of the firm’s marketing capabilities, researchers were interested in the employees’ views of how much their organization understands customer needs (both current and future), as well as if their organization is able to deliver on those needs (Hiu Kan Wong et al., 2022).

Why was leadership assessed in relation to learning? The relationship between an employee and leader should lead to a shared vision and understanding, which sets the foundation for workplace learning (Hiu Kan Wong et al., 2022). Within the LMX construct, researchers were interested on the quality of the exchange between an employee and supervisor, i.e., a high quality LMX would include “high levels of trust, interaction, social support, formal/informal rewards, resources and career development guidance” (Hiu Kan Wong et al., 2022).

To study these relationships, 224 employee-supervisor dyads completed a series of questionnaires to assess the above variables. Supervisors rated employee performance, while the employees rated the quality of the “LMX, perceived marketing capabilities, and their own level of learning orientation” (Hiu Kan Wong et al., 2022).

Results indicated “customer-facing subordinates’ learning orientation may be increased by high-quality LMX relationships and by the perceived marketing capabilities” of their organization (Hiu Kan Wong et al., 2022). LMX relationship quality was also directly related to job performance, indicating that trust, social support, and rewards from supervisors may improve job performance. The authors did not find a direct relationship between learning orientation and job performance, however they indicated that this may be due to not measuring psychological safety (see: LSW Issue #25) or taking on new challenges (Hiu Kan Wong et al., 2022).

How can we utilize these findings? First, customer-facing leadership programs should focus on communication and on building a high quality LMX. The other practical application is to improve employee perception of marketing capabilities. Building confidence in the organization to meet customer needs can help improve employee learning orientation (Hiu Kan Wong et al., 2022).

Key Takeaway: To improve customer-facing employees’ learning orientation, promote high quality leadership/employee relationships & build employees’ perception of the organization's marketing capabilities. Bonus: high quality LMX is also likely to improve employee job performance!

Read More ($): Hiu Kan Wong, A., Xinru Wu, C., Whitla, P., & Stanley Snell, R. (2022). How LMX and marketing capabilities guide and motivate customer-facing employees’ learning. Journal of Business Research, 138.

“LMX quality can enhance a customer-facing sub- ordinate’s learning orientation, which is an important organisational resource in increasingly competitive markets.“
- Hiu Kan Wong et al., 2022**

The Negative Side of Social Learning

While the previous article centered around positive change and growth from leadership, this second article illustrates how we pick up on negative behaviors. It very much reminded me of a classic social learning theory experiment (yes, how we treat our toys matters) from Bandura: The Bobo Doll.

Xiao and Mao (2022) aimed to investigate how, what, and when employees learn from their supervisors' incivility toward customers. While it may seem obvious that employees are likely to imitate supervisors, this study evaluated factors that might contribute to the relationship such as leader-member exchange (LMX) and perceived service climate. The idea here is that a higher quality relationship with a supervisor would lead to higher imitation, while a lower quality relationship might lend itself to less imitation - and therefore lower workplace incivility (Xiao & Mao, 2022). This study operationalizes “perceived service climate” as an individual construct referencing an employee’s individual beliefs about their work environment rather than a workplace norm. The authors suggest that when employees perceive a weaker service climate, they are more likely to devalue customers and engage in customer incivility (Xiao & Mao, 2022).

To evaluate the relationships mentioned above, researchers administered questionnaires to hotel leader/employee dyads at two time points. The Time 1 questionnaire included employee reports on supervisor incivility toward customers, “LMX, customer incivility, and negative affect.” The Time 2 questionnaire was provided three months later; employees reported on their own devaluation of customers and perceptions of service climate while supervisors reported on subordinate incivility toward customers (Xiao & Mao, 2022).

Social learning was found to be taking place, since supervisor incivility toward customers was related to subordinate incivility toward customers. Further, results illustrated that when supervisors show incivility toward customers and a high LMX is reported, subordinates are more likely to engage in customer incivility. This is opposed to a low LMX, which illustrates no increase in subordinate incivility toward customers. Service climate also played a role as a hostile work environment amplified “negative role modeling” (Xiao & Mao, 2022).

Overall, a closer relationship with supervisors exhibiting negative customer-facing behaviors are likely to be imitated by subordinates, particularly if there is a hostile work environment. While we often focus on positive social learning within organizations, it’s also important to address the potential for negative learning. The authors posit that incivility “often arises when employees overwork and experience excessive demands,” inferring that organizations should attempt to alleviate some demands on supervisors and subordinates. Further, employee training should be focused on organizational norms with service delivery to ensure subordinates are not imitating supervisor incivility.

Key Takeaway: Through social learning, employees are likely to imitate supervisors’ customer incivility, particularly if they have a high LMX. The authors suggest providing training on service norms so that subordinates are aware that customer incivility is not the norm for supervisors.

Read More ($): Xiao, J. & Mao, J. Y. (2022). Negative role modeling in hospitality organizations: A social learning perspective on supervisor and subordinate customer-targeted incivility. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 102.

Pets of Learning Science Weekly

Reader Jana M. kindly contributed to our screens being much higher in “cuteness factor” this week!

Sweet Hercules was adopted from the animal shelter and “reminded his family to focus on love.” He got to be his family’s first dog and help them learn about how awesome pups are!

Send us your pet pics at

Wondering why we’re including animal photos in a learning science newsletter? It may seem weird, we admit. But we’re banking on the baby schema effect and the “power of Kawaii.” So, send us your cute pet pics -- you’re helping us all learn better!

The LSW Crew

Learning Science Weekly is written and edited by Kaitlyn Erhardt, Ph.D.

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