Consistently mean bosses are better than inconsistently nice ones

People can accept positive or negative feedback from their manager—it’s unpredictability that really stresses them out

Man in a suit riding a cannon

(Illustration by Kagan McLeod)

A moody boss is even worse than a nasty one, 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,” said the study’s lead author Fadel Matta in a press release.

Matta and his colleagues carried out their experiment on 160 college students. Participants were split into two rooms and given a task to complete; their heart rates were monitored throughout to gauge stress levels. Participants were told that students in the next room were supervising them; in reality the researchers were providing the feedback. A third of the study participants were always treated fairly, a third were always treated unfairly, and the last third received mixed feedback. (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.”) What the researchers found was that inconsistent feedback caused higher stress levels in students than consistently unfair treatment.

Matta and his colleagues later replicated the experiment in an office setting, where researchers surveyed workers and their managers daily over a three-week period. The findings were the same: Employees with erratic bosses were more prone to stress, job dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion than workers who received poor treatments all the time.

An explanation for this may be that people value consistency and predictability in fair treatment as much or more than fair treatment itself, according to Brent Scott, co-author of the paper. So pick a persona—grouchy or gracious—and stick with it.