Good, bad or inconsistent

Fadel Matta

What’s worse than an unfair boss? A sometimes unfair boss.

That’s one conclusion from research by two Terry College management professors, which found that unpredictable supervisors are more stressful to work for than consistently unfair bosses.

“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,” says Fadel Matta, assistant professor at Terry and lead author on the study. “There’s something to this notion of being consistent, even if it is consistently unfair.”

The study, co-authored by Jason Colquitt, who holds the college’s Willson Distinguished Chair, gives new insight in the field of organizational behavior to the cumulative effect of fair and unfair treatment that employees experience over time.

“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,” Colquitt says. “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.”

The authors used both lab and field studies to determine how people react to fair, unfair and inconsistent bosses.

In the lab study, participants wearing heart monitors were asked to perform tasks on a computer and were given regular feedback on their work. Some received consistently fair appraisals, another group received unfair appraisals, and the third group received some of each. The third group had higher heart rates throughout the exercise, suggesting they felt more stress.

In the field study, the researchers sent questionnaires to employees and supervisors at 95 companies, surveying their interactions and stress levels for 15 days. Again, employees who reported the greatest change in supervisor behavior also reported the highest stress levels.

“It boils down to uncertainty in how you’re going to be treated,” Matta says. “When you don’t know what’s coming, you experience this physiological stress. Your work might even suffer because of it.”

For that reason, Matta said, 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.”

Unfair treatment can take many forms, Matta says, not all of which could be a supervisor’s fault. The important thing, however, is for bosses to communicate those instances to employees before they happen.

“There might be constraints on resources, so your boss can’t give you a raise even though you’ve earned it. Or there might be procedures in place in the organization, so there’s nothing your boss can do about a certain situation,” he says. “But when an employee knows that’s coming, it can reduce the stress that comes from those kinds of scenarios.”

The research was published online in the Academy of Management Journal.