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Good News for Anyone With a Crappy Boss

Photo: John Cumming | Photodisc | Getty Images

Bad bosses take note! You won't last.

That's one comforting conclusion from "The Value of Bosses," a new working paper from three business school professors who set out to quantify the effect supervisors actually have on their workers.

Economic theory hasn't carefully scrutinized the impact of the boss — though it's likely to be the "most important relationship in the workplace," write Christopher T. Stanton from the David Eccles School of Business at the Unversity of Utah and Kathryn L. Shaw and Edward P. Lazear from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. (Lazear served as Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and was at the White House from 2006 to 2009. The study did not examine the quality of President George W. Bush as a boss.)

The team looked at daily productivity for more than 23,000 workers and nearly 2,000 supervisors over five years working at technology-based service jobs, which include retail sales clerks, movie theater concession stand employees, in-house IT specialists, airline gate agents, call center workers and other jobs where an employee is at a computer all day.

They separated good bosses from bad bosses by measuring worker output — how much underlings produced in a given hour — and found that good bosses had a measurably larger impact on worker productivity.

The research seems to contradict conventional wisdom, more charmingly known as the Dilbert Principal. Explains the creator of that cubicle cartoon: "The concept is that in many cases the least competent, [the] least smart people are promoted, simply because they’re the ones you don’t want doing actual work."

We all know that happens. However, according to this new research, those doughnut-cramming slackers don't last. The exit rate of bad bosses (those who don't improve the productivity of their workers) is almost twice the rate of the average-quality boss. (The researchers don't explain whether bad bosses exit voluntarily or get fired.)

Worried you're on your way out, half-eaten cruller in hand? Here's some advice: According to the researchers, the best bosses are teachers and cheerleaders. Good bosses teach skills that last: "The boss's primary job is teaching skills that persist." Motivating the troops is "secondary," though "a kind word" can make a worker "push harder for an hour or two," they write.

Good bosses can't solve everything, though. The researchers note that the optimal combination places the best bosses with the most productive workers. The effect of good bosses on high-quality workers is greater than the effect of good bosses on lower-quality workers.

We suppose those guys should be put on notice, too. Back to work slackers!

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