UI study: Workers may be more accepting of an incompetent, older boss

IOWA CITY — A University of Iowa study finds people who have a blundering boss will give them a pass if that boss is older, but they’ll judge more harshly if the boss is younger.

UI professor of management and entrepreneurship Michele Williams co-authored the study that surveyed hundreds of professionals. It found workers are more willing to accept an incompetent boss who’s older and more experienced, but they’re less likely to tolerate incompetence if the boss is younger. “When your boss is competent, age doesn’t matter,” Williams says. “If you’re a younger boss and you’ve been promoted and you’re doing a great job, people accept and respect you and think the performance system is fair, but when you’re less competent, then that older piece kicks in.”

Those working under an older supervisor may convince themselves their employer’s promotion system is fair and their boss isn’t so bad. Williams says that worker is likely justifying a system that’s -not- fair, just to avoid the mental conflict that could result from acknowledging an unfair system. “When they feel like they’re in a low power position or they don’t have many job alternatives or as the economy gets worse and jobs dry up,” Williams says, “then people are more likely to look to those status characteristics as evidence that their organization is fair because they want to justify the system.”

The study found that workers who think their younger, less experienced boss is incompetent will begin to question the fairness of their employers’ promotion system. Williams says that can have a negative impact on their behavior, their morale, and their productivity. “Using age as a marker of the fairness of the system is good for the organization, in the sense people aren’t getting disgruntled and they’re not complaining, but it is not good for the individual employee,” Williams says. “They’re not seeing things clearly. They’re accepting a boss that maybe they should be talking to the organization about getting someone else promoted into that position.”

So what are the take-aways from the study? Williams says people need to remember to judge a person by their actions, not their appearance, and give the new boss an opportunity to prove him or herself. “Transitions are difficult, so when you get a new boss coming in, it’s a change, they’re going to change the way things are done,” Williams says, “and keeping that open mind, and giving that person a chance — regardless of their age — is so important. Age is something that’s kind of still under the radar in our culture.”

The study is being published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.