No one likes an unfair boss. But it appears that you are better off with a consistently unfair manager than one who is inconsistently fair.

Research from Michigan State University, published in the Academy of Management Journal, shows that employees with a boss who is regularly unfair are less stressed and more satisfied with their job than those with an unpredictable boss.

“Our work shows that being treated consistently unfairly can be better for employees than being treated fairly sometimes and unfairly other times,” the research concludes.

The study undertook both lab experiments and field studies. College students were separated into groups to perform a specific tasks, they were then given feedback on the tasks.

A third of the participants got feedback that praised their efforts, with comments such as “thanks for your effort”. A third consistently received negative feedback, hearing things like “I wish I was working with someone else”. The final third heard a mix of the two.

The students’ heart rates were monitored to test their stress levels. The participants who regularly received positive feedback were, as expected, the least stressed. However, those who consistently heard negative feedback were less stressed than those who received mixed messages.

The field study showed similar results. The researchers monitored 100 workers and their supervisors, in a range of companies.

Employees with unpredictable managers were “more prone to stress, job dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion than workers who were treated poorly all the time.”

Brent Scott, co-author of the study believes this could show that people value consistency and predictability as much, or more than, fair treatment itself.

“A lot of it centres around this issue of uncertainty,” lead author Fadel Matta notes. “This notion of knowing what to expect – even if it’s bad – is better than not knowing what to expect at work.”

The researchers offer some advice on how leaders can treat employees better: “Prioritising self-discipline, focus and careful thinking could help deliver leaders who are not just fair some of the time, but who are instead fair almost all of the time.”

Matta says the key is to coach supervisors on how best to prepare their employees for when potentially unfair outcomes are on the way.

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