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Executive Coaching Insights - Unpredictable Worse Than Constant Abuse

An interesting study done by Dr. Fadel Matta of Michigan State University (written in the Washington Post article “The Worst Kind Of Boss Is Not The One Who's Always A Jerk”) found that the worst types of bosses are those who unpredictable in regards to their behavior.

This erratic behavior, fluctuating from being civil to completely unreasonable, generates a higher level of physiological stress on employees and has a major negative impact on performance and well-being.

In his research study, Dr. Matta studied the erratic behavior impact on the levels of “interpersonal fairness” (defined as the degree of respect and propriety accorded others) in his test subjects. He broke his test into three groups:

Group 1 – always received fair or respectful comments

Group 2 – always received unfair or disrespectful comments

Group 3 – received an unpredictable mix of fair and unfair comments 

Dr. Matta had each group go through several rounds of feedback and then he measured the heart rates of each group to determine their overall stress. The results of his study showed that Group 1 had the lowest level of stress (no surprise). Group 3 actually had the highest level of stress, more than Group 2 who was given only negative feedback. 

The study showed that the unpredictability of not knowing how a boss will react was more stressful than being consistently treated poorly. The roller coaster of their bosses reaction brings uncertainty and doubt to the workplace and begins to become a major detriment to peak performance.

Dr. Matta concluded:

“Employees are better off if their boss is a consistent jerk than if he is a loose cannon who is fair at times and unfair at other times”.

The study arrived at several executive coach insights that can be brought to the workplace:

  • Add justice related goals to the leadership development program
  • Incorporate fairness questions in 360-degree reviews
  • Add self-control questions to candidate assessments for leadership positions.