Bad bosses: The consistent jerk vs. Jekyll & Hyde

Workers of the world, given your druthers, would you rather have a boss who is a jerk all of the time or just part of the time? Believe it or not, it may be easier to deal with the full-time version.

Jena McGregor, writing for the “On Leadership” column of the Washington Post, reports on a research study by Fadel K. Matta, Brent A. ScottJason A. Colquitt, Joel Koopman, and Liana G. Passantino published in the Academy of Management Journal, finding “that employees are less stressed and have more job satisfaction when their bosses are always unfair than when their boss is unpredictable.”

One part of the study involved a lab experiment with college students getting feedback from a boss in simulated work environments:

To no one’s surprise, those who got the consistently nice feedback fared best when it came to the heart rate monitoring. But those who consistently heard how much it sucks to work with them did better than those who sometimes heard compliments and sometimes got burned.

The second part of the study surveyed actual workers in a variety of work settings and found the same thing:

Again, employees who had unpredictable managers were more likely to be stressed, dissatisfied with their jobs and emotionally exhausted than those who said they were always treated unfairly.

The Jekyll and Hyde boss

These research findings dovetail with what we’ve heard for years about bad bosses, workplace bullying, and workplace incivility, namely, that the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde bosses may cause higher levels of stress and uncertainty than those whose behaviors are predictable and consistent. We tend to prefer certainty to uncertainty, perhaps even to the point of opting for a reliably jerky boss over one who offers kudos one day and rants the next. After all, many of us exercise such a preference in other human interactions, ranging from personal relationships to dealing with authority figures such as police officers.

So what lies beneath these Jekyll and Hyde behaviors? In a blog post earlier this year, business school professor Joel Brockner discusses a study by Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson that offers two possible explanations. The first is “moral licensing”:

One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

The second is personal resource depletion:

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day.

Of course, this also begs the question of whether too many employers hire too many bosses who have low levels of ethics and self-control to begin with, leaving a very thin margin of error in terms of everyday treatment of subordinates and peers. As I have mentioned frequently here, research indicates that the higher we go up the organizational chart, the more we find leaders who demonstrate anti-social and psychopathic qualities. Accordingly, the presence of bad bosses probably means that some employers are drawn to the wrong kind of people as potential managers and leaders in the first place. In such instances, they’re more likely to see Dr. Jekyll at the interview, with Mr. Hyde showing up for the first day of work.

2 responses

  1. Full-time versions would more politically acceptable to me because it can be easier to document a case against them. Personally, I more interested in the systemic support of bosses whose sadism is supported by the workplaces where they are employed. At Hunter College where I am a tenured journalism professor, the College Administration as well as the other Shared Governance Institutions, such as the College Senate, are so mesmerized about maintaining a positive image of the College that they are willing to tolerate corruption to keep the facade going. Rank cronyism and rank nepotism feed into this systemic effort.

  2. Families impacted by addiction know what it’s like to live with someone who can show both Jekyll and Hyde behaviors.

    Dysfunction at home is alive and sick in the workplace as well. It’s going to take examination of issues so much deeper than what is reflected in Ms. McGregor’s article. .

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