Surprisingly, new research suggests employees prefer a boss who is consistently rude rather than one who is unpredictable.
A team of current and former Michigan State University business scholars discovered employees who perceive their supervisor as being consistently unfair are actually less stressed and more satisfied with their job, than employees with an erratic boss.
The study included both a lab experiment in which participants’ heart rates were monitored for stress levels and a separate field study of workers and supervisors from 95 employers representing a host of industries.
The findings appear 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,” said Dr. Fadel Matta, lead author of the study and a researcher in Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business.
“We found that inconsistent treatment is much more stressful than being treated poorly all the time.”
In the lab experiment, about 160 college students were split into two rooms and given a stock-pricing task. The students in each room were told the students in the other room would act as their supervisor; however, the feedback the students received was actually sent from the researchers.
A third of the students were always treated fairly, a third were always treated unfairly and a third received erratic treatment that bounced back and forth between fair and unfair.
Examples of unfair statements included “You should be ashamed of your efforts on that last round” and “It sucks to work with an unmotivated person.”
For the study, stress was assessed by monitoring participants’ heart rates. The heart rate measurements suggests that those who were treated inconsistently experienced more stress than those who were treated unfairly all the time.
Then, the findings were replicated in a field study in which the researchers surveyed workers and their bosses daily over a three-week period.
Participants worked in industries ranging from retail to health care to technology. According to this study, employees with fickle bosses were more prone to stress, job dissatisfaction, and emotional exhaustion than workers who were treated poorly all the time.
Although the finding is counterintuitive — that people would be rather treated poorly all of the time, rather than just some of the time — consistency is the critical factor.
Dr. Brent Scott, Michigan State University associate professor of management and study co-author, explains that people appear to value consistency and predictability in fair treatment as much or more than fair treatment itself.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the best outcomes for employees occurred when their supervisors were consistently fair,” said Scott.
“However, if supervisors are going to be unfair, the results suggest that they would be better off behaving that way all of the time.”
Still, in the real world being consistently fair is often not easy. As such, researchers suggest supervisors may require more than the occasional training session offered by many companies. In fact, the goal of consistent supervision could be woven into routine development programs and supervisor assessments.
In addition, the researchers suggest personality and integrity tests — typically used when hiring or promoting a supervisor to predict job performance — could also be used to predict their ability to treat employees fairly on a consistent basis.
“Prioritizing self-discipline, focus, and careful thinking could help deliver leaders who are not just fair some of the time, but who are instead fair almost all of the time,” the study concludes.