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SCIENCE: Your Jerk Boss Might Be Better for You Than You Think

Topics: Career Advice

In a pick-your-poison type of social experiment, the researchers at Michigan State University have analyzed two types of workplace boss personas to find out which type is the most stressful for employees – a boss who is consistently a jerk, or a boss who is a loose cannon.

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(Photo Credit: JD Hancock/Flickr)

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About the Experiment

Researchers assembled a group of 160 college-student participants and gave them all the same task of stock-pricing. Each participant was assigned a “supervisor” (in reality, a researcher) to give feedback about the task at hand.

One group of students was treated fairly by the supervisor, another treated unfairly, and the final group treated erratically, with feedback that bounced back and forth between being fair and unfair.

In order to truly test emotional stress, supervisors handed out unfair statements to the erratic-treatment group, like “you should be ashamed of your efforts in this last round” and even saying things like “it sucks to work with an unmotivated person.” During this process, the researchers were monitoring the participants’ heart rates, as rapid heart rate is common indicator of stress.


In this study, those who were treated inconsistently experienced more stress than those who were treated unfairly all the time.

To confirm the results, the researchers conducted a second study in which they surveyed workers and their bosses every day for a three-week period. Participants in the study came from backgrounds ranging from healthcare to retail to IT. Again, this study confirmed that employees with fickle bosses were more prone to stress compared to workers who were treated poorly all the time.

Why It Matters

Would you rather have your boss be a jerk all of the time or just randomly when they feel like it? Your heart might tell you that the latter is better, because at least then you’d receive fair treatment some of the time, but science says it’s better when your boss is consistent, even if that means he or she is a jerk. This is because as humans, we crave fairness. Study co-author Brent Scott, associate professor of management at MSU, says that 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,” said Scott. “However, if supervisors are going to be unfair, the results suggest that they would be better off behaving that way all the time.”

Tell Us What You Think!

Would you rather have a bad boss all of the time, or just part of the time? Comment below or join the discussion on Twitter!

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AdamThedano Recent comment authors
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This from my phone. Will keep short. Managers in all shapes, sizes, genders, or inclinations, are BOUND (!) by fairness rules. The ones that get away with THEDONALD type, “Your fired!”, better have his cash!


Consistently unfair or randomly unfair are still negative factors that would build up stress. Things fall apart when the stress reach over the limit that one can take.

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