Unpredictable or unfair: Which makes the worse leader?

A recent study examined if employees would rather have an unfair boss all the time or just some of the time. The answer is likely not what you would expect.

The study found consistency, even when it comes to undesirable traits, is better than unpredictable leadership behavior, according to The Washington Post. Employees feel less stressed and are more satisfied with their jobs when their bosses are always unfair than when they are unpredictable.

"Intuitively, you would think the more fairness you get, the better," said Fadel Matta, a researcher and doctoral student at East Lansing-based Michigan State University and the lead author of the paper, in an interview. "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 study, which was published in February in the Academy of Management Journal, monitored participants' heart rates to evaluate their stress levels. Split into three groups, one subset of the participants consistently received positive feedback on their performance on a given task, a second group consistently received negative and hurtful feedback and the third group was given a mix of the two.

The participants who consistently heard positive feedback had the lowest stress, followed by those who received all negative feedback. Those whose feedback was unpredictable, changing between positive and mean comments, exhibited the most stress, according to the report. 

"A lot of it centers around this issue of uncertainty," Mr. Matta said, according to the report. "This notion of knowing what to expect — even if it's bad — is better than not knowing what to expect at work." 

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