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Why having a consistent jerk for a boss isn't all bad: Stress is worse when boss is unpredictable


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Employees working for bosses who are consistently unfair are less stressed than those working for bosses who are sporadically fair, according to a new study.

The study showed the importance of knowing what to expect, even if it’s bad, according to Fadel Matta, a researcher at Michigan State University who was lead author of the study. The Washington Post and Science Daily covered the findings.

“Intuitively, you would think the more fairness you get, the better,” Matta told the Post. “But that’s not what we demonstrated. It’s better if supervisors are a consistent jerk than if they’re fair sometimes and not fair other times. People want to know what they can expect when they come into work.”

The findings, published by the Academy of Management Journal, were based on a lab experiment and a survey of nearly 100 workers.

In the experiment, college students estimated the stock prices of hypothetical companies while “supervisors” gave feedback. Some supervisors praised the students, saying things such as, “It’s great to work with a motivated person.” Other supervisors were always critical, saying things such as, “It sucks to work with an unmotivated person.” A third group of supervisors gave some praise and dished out some criticism.

Researchers monitored the heart rate of the critiqued students to assess their stress. Those who got the good feedback had the least stress, while those who received inconsistent feedback fared worst.

In the second part of the study, surveyed workers were asked about perceptions of fairness while their supervisors were asked to measure their ability for self-control. Those with unpredictable bosses had more stress, dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion than those whose bosses always treated them unfairly.


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