An unfair, uncaring manager makes for an uncertain working life, one characterised by stress, absenteeism and poor performance. But new research suggests a silver lining: when the boss is unjust, team members come together.
A multi-institution collaboration led by Adam Stoverink presented teams of students with an awkward event. The students thought they’d been recruited to solve tasks for a cash prize, but they were left twiddling their thumbs while waiting for an assigned supervisor to show up. When he eventually did, he gave a sincere apology to half of the groups, but the rest were fobbed off with a shrug, as he explained, “clearly my time is more important than yours.” Post-experiment, participants who were fobbed off rated their supervisor poorly, but also expressed feeling closer to their team-mates.
The evidence suggests the participants were seeking to relieve cognitive dissonance, the discomfort caused by an ambiguous situation that doesn’t line up with their beliefs. One way to do this is to seek solidarity with others in the same position. This was characterised as “misery doesn’t just love any kind of company, it loves only miserable company” by eminent social psychologist Stanley Schachter on the back of his classic experiment, where people who had volunteered for an electric shock of unknown severity unanimously chose to wait in a room with others sharing their fate, rather than people who didn’t. In the current study, ambiguity was provoked through injustice (who doesn’t believe that they deserve to be treated justly?), in the form of a leader who didn’t appear to have his team’s interests at heart. As predicted, the greater the participants’ unease, the closer they felt to others in the same boat.
Bad situations can generate perverse benefits: in this case, solidarity amongst mistreated people. I can certainly recall times where I stuck with my team-mates in spite of the boss we had, not because of her. But this is still a silver lining on a dark cloud: in this paper alone, a follow-up study reports that teams with a rude supervisor squandered more of their precious remaining time trying to make sense of the supervisor’s rudeness, instead of progressing on the tasks. More broadly, such employees would be beset by rumination, doubting and second-guessing motivations, to say nothing of the effects of specific acts of injustice against them. And of course, some unjust leaders, whether by design or through incompetence, end up playing team members against one another, thereby counteracting the camaraderie effects reported here.
The lesson for organisations is not to assume that a cohesive team is a credit to their leader; sometimes the opposite is the case.
Stoverink, A., Umphress, E., Gardner, R., & Miner, K. (2014). Misery loves company: Team dissonance and the influence of supervisor-focused interpersonal justice climate on team cohesiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99 (6), 1059-1073 DOI: 10.1037/a0037915