Is Your Boss a Jerk? That Could Be a Good Thing, MSU Study Says

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Employees whose boss is consistently unfair are less stressed and more satisfied with their jobs than employees with an erratic boss, according to new research from Michigan State University.

"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," says Fadel Matta, lead author of the study and a researcher at Michigan State's Broad College of Business. "We found that inconsistent treatment is much more stressful than being treated poorly all the time."

Matta says 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 across various industries.

He says in the lab experiment, the researchers monitored participants' heart rates — a common indicator of stress — and found those who were treated inconsistently experienced more stress than those who were treated unfairly all the time. Matta says in the field study, employees with fickle bosses were more prone to stress, job dissatisfaction, and emotional exhaustion than workers who were treated poorly all the time.

Brent Scott, co-author of the study and associate professor of management at Michigan State, says 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," Scott says. "However, if supervisors are going to be unfair, the results suggest that they would be better off behaving that way all of the time."

He says companies should require supervisor assessments and offer routine development programs, along with having supervisors take personality and integrity tests before hiring or a promotion to better predict job performance.

The study appears online in the Academy of Management Journal.​

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