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Lead Your Team Managing

Unpredictable Bosses Worry Workers Most

Unpredictable Bosses Worry Workers Most
Credit: Ra2Studio/Sutterstock

It's better to have a boss who is always a jerk than one who is considerate one second and rude the next, new research finds.

Employees whose bosses are consistently unfair aren't as stressed and are happier in their jobs than their peers with erratic bosses, according to a study recently published online in the Academy of Management Journal.

"Our findings essentially show that employees are better off if their boss is a consistent jerk rather than being a loose cannon who's fair at times and unfair at other times," Fadel Matta, the study's lead author and a researcher in Michigan State University's Eli Broad College of Business, said in a statement. "We found that inconsistent treatment is much more stressful than being treated poorly all the time."

As part of the study, researchers conducted a lab experiment in which about 160 college students were split into two groups and given a stock-pricing task. Each group was told that the other would act as supervisor. However, in reality, the feedback the groups received came from the study's authors.

During the experiment, one-third of the students were always treated fairly, one-third were always treated unfairly, and the last third received a mix of fair and unfair treatment. [See Related Story: Admit It: Hating Your Boss May Not Be So Bad ]

In order to check the students' stress levels, the researchers monitored each participant's heart rate during the experiment. Results showed that those participants who were treated inconsistently experienced more stress than those who were treated unfairly all the time.

The study's authors also conducted a field study in which they surveyed workers and their bosses daily over a three-week period. This survey showed that employees with erratic bosses were more prone to stress, job dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion than those who were consistently treated badly.

The research shows that workers appear to value consistency and predictability in how they're treated, even if that means they are consistently treated unfairly, said Brent Scott, one of the study's co-authors and an associate professor at Michigan State University.

"Let's not lose sight of the fact that the best outcomes for employees occurred when their supervisors were consistently fair," Scott said. "However, if supervisors are going to be unfair, the results suggest that they would be better off behaving that way all of the time."

The researchers said it will take more than sporadic training sessions to get all bosses to consistently act fair. They suggest tying such training into routine development programs and supervisor assessments. Additionally, they said personality and integrity tests could be used during the hiring or promotion process to help predict if a boss has what it takes to treat employees fairly all the time.

The study was co-authored by Liana Passantino, a Michigan State doctoral candidate in management; Jason Colquitt, a Michigan State graduate and faculty member at the University of Georgia; and Joel Koopman, a Michigan State graduate and faculty member at the University of Cincinnati.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.