Published

Expect the unexpected is a caveat not usually found in academic research, but Terry College assistant professor of management Fadel Matta will take it every time.

“The theme in my research is that I like to take things we think as normatively negative and flip ’em,” says Matta, who finished his PhD at Michigan State last year. “Nothing is always good, even when we think it might be. So, I like to ask the question of when might something we think of as being good — like fairness — actually be a bad thing?”

Matta studies organizational behavior, a branch of management focusing on what leaders can do to improve motivation and performance. It’s grounded not only in business scholarship, but also in the fields of psychology and sociology.

His contrarian research bent leads him to discoveries that seem counterintuitive, but make sense on a gut level. 

“I’m always asking ‘What are the exceptions?’ because, to me, that’s the interesting angle,” he says. “Where are these exceptions, how can we pinpoint them, and how can we prove it? I always want to prove these ideas, and that can be hard. My core areas of research are leader-member exchange, which is the relationships that form between employees and supervisors; organizational justice, which is very much in the eye of the beholder — or the eye of the employee; and emotions.”

Within the last year, his published research made its way into outlets such as the Washington Post, the Harvard Business Review and Business Insider.

Here’s a look at two of his more intriguing findings.

When two jerks are better than one

Conventional wisdom suggests outgoing and accommodating people are best suited to handle negotiations. After all, they’re nice and approachable — who doesn’t want to work with someone like that?

As it turns out, lots of people. Especially those who aren’t as nice or agreeable themselves.

Through a series of tests and surveys, Matta found negotiations work best when both sides have matching personality traits – even if they’re both disagreeable.

“If you’re a jerk and I’m a jerk, then it might seem like we’ll never get anywhere in negotiations, but it’s actually more useful to put two similarly minded people together,” Matta says.

At their core, negotiations are about relationships, and like relationships, they work best when both parties approach it the same way, Matta says.

“A lot of the research on personality shows that it has less of an effect than you would expect in negotiations, but that research has looked only at an individual’s personality,” Matta says. “We decided to look at the combination of personalities between two negotiators.”

Matta based his research on the “Big Five” personality traits from psychological literature — conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and extraversion. The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, focused on agreeableness and extraversion because of their interpersonal nature

“The takeaway when entering negotiations is to consider both parties’ personalities and how they might mesh, instead of just deciding to send in a really well-liked and agreeable person,” Matta says. “It’s the combination of the two people that will determine how well the negotiations proceed.”

Bosses behaving badly

Another piece of Matta’s work showed more fairness isn’t always better.

Matta, along with fellow Terry College management professor Jason Colquitt, found bosses who are always unfair cause their employees less stress than unpredictable ones.

“It’s counterintuitive. You would think that a person would want to be treated fairly as often as possible, instead of always being treated unfairly. But that’s not what we found,” Matta says “There’s something to this notion of being consistent, even if it is consistently unfair.”

“What Fadel realized is that most of the good research that shows how important fairness is to employees is a static snapshot of a dynamic phenomenon,” says Colquitt, who holds the college’s Willson Distinguished Chair. “As scholars, we need to understand how fairness ebbs and flows over time, and how employees react to those patterns. It is complicated methodologically, but vitally important.”

It boils down to uncertainty, Matta says. When employees know what’s coming, they can prepare themselves. When they’re in the dark about how a boss might react, they incur additional stress and mental fatigue.

For that reason, managers shouldn’t try to make amends for unfair treatment by overcorrecting their errors later. That could lead to a climate of uncertainty. Instead, supervisors should seek to eliminate uncertainty by clearly communicating new expectations or circumstances to employees.

“As a boss, you might say, ‘Joe didn’t get the promotion, so I’m going to do this for him to make up for it.’ But really, it’s not about everything evening out. It’s about not knowing what to expect,” Matta says. “Once your employees know what to expect, being fair more often is better.”