One Thing That's Worse Than Having a Jerk for a Boss

It may even make you grateful for a mean boss.

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If you dread meeting with your evil boss every day, a new study from Michigan State University might help you see the silver lining. Yes, a boss who's unfair, demanding, and a master of the passive-aggressive email is bad, but having one who is kind one minute and rude the next might be even worse. Employees who worked under a consistently inconsiderate boss were actually less stress than employees who worked for a Jekyll-and-Hyde supervisor. These findings were published online in the Academy of Management Journal.

To arrive at this conclusion, researchers studied heart rates of 160 college students in a lab experiment. Students were split into two teams, and each perceived the other group would act as the "bosses" (but researchers actually told them how to behave). One-third of the students were consistently given fair, kind feedback, one-third were always treated unfairly, and the third group received a hot-and-cold treatment that alternated between fair and unfair. Using heart rates as a stress indicator, researchers found that the third group experienced significantly more stress. 

This experiment was then replicated in a field study of 95 bosses and employers across industries. Scientists studied employee stress levels over a three-week period, and found that employees with "fickle bosses" had higher stress levels and job dissatisfaction, and were overall more emotionally exhausted.

“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the best outcomes for employees occurred when their supervisors were consistently fair,” study co-author Brent Scott said in a statement. “However, if supervisors are going to be unfair, the results suggest that they would be better off behaving that way all of the time.”

To ensure that bosses are fair supervisors, researchers suggest increased training opportunities for supervisors, as well as performance assessments. Additionally, HR departments might consider administering personality tests for potential hires or promotions, to assess whether bosses are capable of consistent fair treatment.