science of us

Why It’s Better to Hate Your Boss Than to Feel Ambivalent Toward Them

Photo: William King/Getty Images

Many working adults have had at least one boss they couldn’t stand; it seems likely that fewer have had a boss they loved. More common than both these extremes, though, are the bosses who waver between them: sometimes supportive, sometimes not; sometimes helpful and sometimes frustrating; etc. And while it’s intuitive that a bad boss can negatively impact their employees’ well-being, new research published in the Journal of Management suggests that a boss you’re ambivalent about might be even worse for you — at least in terms of your job performance.

In the study, 952 subjects were asked to rate their ambivalence toward their leaders, or bosses, and to rate their overall relationships with their managers, and their emotional experiences at work. The subjects’ managers were then asked to rate their employee’s work performance (yikes). Interestingly, researchers found that those employees who were most ambivalent toward their managers were rated most poorly by those managers. This finding held true regardless of the way employees rated their overall relationship with their manager — ambivalence made bad relationships and otherwise good relationships worse.

Researchers, led by Allan Lee, a professor of organization studies and management at the University of Exeter, suggest the detrimental effect of ambivalence may have something to do with what’s called cognitive consistency, a principle that holds that people generally like to behave in ways that are consistent with their feelings and attitudes, because inconsistency makes us uncomfortable. Because ambivalence is a form of cognitive inconsistency, it makes us feel bad, which, the thinking goes, makes our work performance suffer.

Previous research has shown that ambivalent friendships are associated with higher blood pressure, so there’s good reason to believe ambivalence can have a genuine negative effect on the body — and Lee’s research shows it isn’t great for the brain, either: subjects with ambivalent work relationships reported increased anxiety at work, presumably exacerbated by all the peer-to-peer commiserating done over Slack. While it’s doubtful this means you’d be better off openly hating your boss, it might mean it’s time to look for ways to improve your relationship with your boss — and, if that’s not possible, to clean up that résumé.

Why Hating Your Boss Beats Feeling Ambivalent Toward Them