Science Confirms It: Your Boss Is Making You Unhappy

There’s plenty of evidence out there to confirm the old adage that a happy worker is a productive worker. In a striking example from a 2012 study, American companies that made a list of the 100 best places to work generated between 2.3% and 3.8% higher stock returns, compared to competitors, between 1984 and 2011. What social science has been missing is equally strong evidence behind a common related belief: that behind each happy worker is a competent boss.

No more. A research group led by the labor economist Benjamin Artz of University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh claims to have compiled the first empirical support that a boss’s competence has a significant, measurable influence on a worker’s job satisfaction and overall well-being. In a new working paper, the researchers document their uncomfortably strong case by analyzing survey data from thousands of workers in the United States and Great Britain going back several decades.

“Bosses are ubiquitous in working life,” write Artz and company. “This paper offers evidence consistent with the belief that the qualities of bosses—in particular their technical competence—can have powerful and little-appreciated consequences for workers’ well-being.”

We’ve highlighted the key findings that, put together, confirm your gut instinct that it’s easier to be happy with your job when you have supervisors who are good at their own.

1. Competent bosses matter to American workers. Artz’s team crunched numbers from a random, nationally representative sample of about 6,000 young U.S. workers who responded to a survey in 1990. The workers were asked to rate the following statement on a four-point scale: “Overall, how satisfied are you with your job?” The researchers then correlated these answers with two general signs of competence: whether the workers’ bosses had worked their way up through the company or started the company. The link between job satisfaction and supervisor competence was “substantial.”

2. And to Brits, too. The researchers then analyzed similar data from a 2000 survey of 1,600 British workers. This time they linked job satisfaction with two different measures of supervisor competence: whether the boss could step in to do the worker’s job, and whether the boss is extremely good at his or her own job. In both cases, there was a strong connection. A boss who could fill in for an absent worker was worth almost half an extra point on a seven-point scale of job satisfaction. Meanwhile, bosses who did their own jobs well were worth a full extra point.

3. This “supervisor effect” has held true for years. To expand their data pool, the researchers next examined survey responses for American workers for five different years between 1979 and 1988. This amounted to roughly 27,000 employees in all. In this widened sample, the link between job satisfaction and supervisor competence became “very substantial”—with the savviest bosses worth a full point to worker well-being on a four-point scale.

4. And it “dominates” other potential job satisfaction factors. While it may be intuitive that a boss’s competence can influence a worker’s happiness, the same can be said for any number of other factors, including education, earnings, job tenure, and the type of work done (e.g. public versus private sector). What the researchers found, comparing the strength of all these variables, was that supervisor competence was the “single strongest predictor” of employee well-being (below). “It dominates any of the more conventional influences upon people’s job satisfaction, including the role of worker remuneration,” they write.


5. A worker’s personality has little to do with it. One objection to the aforementioned findings is that naturally cheerful workers might be more inclined to give higher job satisfaction or supervisor competence ratings, skewing the data toward the sunnier end of the spectrum. Artz and company tried to control for this sort of optimism. Though they didn’t have personality information, they found a survey response that might serve as a proxy for an upbeat nature: ratings of co-worker friendliness. With this factor out of the way, the link between worker well-being and boss competence did dampen slightly, but it remained significant—a result that the researchers find “consistent with the existence of a genuine role for supervisor competence.”

6. Nor does self-selection. Another potential objection to the findings is that workers often change jobs when they’re unhappy with their boss. In that sense, the survey data might show an artificially strong connection between job satisfaction and boss competence, because some employees might have chosen to work at places they know will make them happy. So the researchers removed any job switchers from the sample pool. That left only employees who’d stayed in the same job over time, and held a supervisor’s personal nature—rather than the nature of the work environment—as a constant. Once again, the competent supervisor effect held true.

7. Competent bosses matter more to older workers. Finally, Artz and company found that the effect of supervisor competence on job satisfaction varied a bit with a worker’s age. The well-being of older workers, in particular, seemed to rely more strongly on their boss. There are a couple reasons this might be the case. First, it’s tougher to change jobs as you get older, which means older workers may be stuck with whatever supervisor they have. Second, older workers tend to be more senior, meaning their direct supervisors might have more power within the company, and thus more influence in general over employee well-being.

Like all studies, this research has its limitations. It links supervisor competence with job satisfaction, but can’t show that the former directly caused the latter; it also tends to conflate “well-being” with “job satisfaction,” though the two concepts aren’t completely analogous. And, of course, the findings aren’t terribly surprising. But at least now when you complain about your boss, you have some evidence on your side.