Compared with Rudy, Jim was definitely the worse boss. He was dictatorial. Condescending. Weirdly demanding. (For a while, all our meetings started at the :57 mark instead of on the hour.) Whenever he came our way, we sighed and thought, resignedly, "Oh, great ... "

Yet even though he was a better boss -- especially where it mattered, like fostering productivity, dealing with problems, developing employees, etc. -- whenever Rudy came our way, we stiffened and thought, "Oh, no. What now?"

Yep: Even though, had we been asked to provide a 360-review, we would have checked the box beside "incompetent jerk," we all still preferred to work for Jim. 


Predictability matters

According to a 2017 study published in Academy of Management Journal, bosses who are sometimes -- but not always -- fair cause their employees to experience greater anxiety and stress than bosses who are always unfair.

Turns out consistency, even negative consistency, is actually better than inconsistency.

The devil you know, like Jim? We could deal with him. We knew what he would do, so we knew how to work with and around him.

Rudy? Even though he tended to be better, still: We never knew what he would say or do.

One day he would wave off a $10,000 spoilage by foisting the problem off on another department. Another day, he would formally discipline an employee (and by "employee," I mean me) for a $1.30 error. 

Research has shown that people are better off when their overall level of fair treatment is higher as opposed to lower.

(Yet) our laboratory study demonstrates that higher average levels of fair treatment do not necessarily result in desirable outcomes when those average levels of treatment are unstable.

Although stress is the central outcome, work stress has been meta-analytically linked to job dissatisfaction, emotional exhaustion, and counterproductive work behaviors.

Or in nonresearcher-speak, having to deal with an unpredictable boss impacts your performance, engagement, and satisfaction -- even if, on average, that boss tends to treat you "better" than a more predictable boss.

So does fairness

Granted, every employee is different. Some need a nudge. Others need regular confidence boosts. Others need an occasional kick in the pants. (Hi, me!) Some employees have earned greater freedom and responsibility while others have not.

That's why equal treatment is not always fair treatment.

Even so, consistent is different than "fair." Writing me up if every time I'm only one minute early to work isn't fair, but it is consistent. Laughing about me coming in late yesterday, though, and writing me up for it today? That's inconsistent. That's what the researchers call "justice variability," and it's a primary driver of stress, job dissatisfaction, and decreased performance.

Because, as the researchers write, "The more justice the better," still: "Variably fair treatment was more physiologically stressful than always being treated unfairly." 

Even so, that doesn't mean bosses who consistently enforce a stupid rule are somehow better. According to the researchers, the best bosses -- at least in this area of leadership -- are self-disciplined and think before they act.

Unlike Rudy, they don't let a bad day affect their judgment. They don't let their emotions momentarily cloud their judgment. They take a beat. They take a breath.

Then they make a decision.

Prioritizing 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.

Because while it isn't always easy to make a smart decision, it is, if you give yourself a little time, fairly easy to make a reasonable decision.

And then to take the time, if appropriate, to explain why you made that decision.

Because understanding eliminates the stress and uncertainty caused by seeming inconsistency.