Study finds workers more willing to accept incompetent supervisors if they’re older
Monday, May 8, 2023

by Tom Snee

A new study from the Tippie College of Business finds that workers respond differently to incompetent bosses, depending on whether they are younger or older than themselves.

michele williams portrait
Michele Williams

Michele Williams, professor of management and entrepreneurship at Tippie and study co-author, surveyed hundreds of professional workers in the United States and China. Some were asked about their perceptions of their actual supervisor at work; others were given a hypothetical situation that involved an incompetent supervisor and asked how they would respond.

The survey responses found that:

Workers are more willing to accept an incompetent boss who is older and more experienced than they are, but less likely to accept incompetence if the boss is younger and less experienced.

—If they think their younger, less experienced boss is incompetent, then they start to question the fairness of their employers’ promotion system, which affects their behavior, morale, and ultimately, their productivity.

—This is especially true when subordinates have little power or feel they have no easy escape route to another work team or an entirely new job with a different employer.

—Workers are more likely to accept an incompetent older boss by convincing themselves that the employer’s promotion system is fair, so the boss may not be as bad as they think. In fact, Williams said the worker is likely justifying an unfair system to themselves to avoid the psychological discomfort that may result from acknowledging an unfair system.

She said this rationalization is to their own long-term disadvantage.

“For these employees, the better moves for their career may be to garner more resources and power or to seek alternative employment opportunities, rather than to justify a flawed system,” she said. “Acknowledging one’s system as unfair may be a trigger for psychological discomfort, but can also be a catalyst for change.”

The study, “My boss is younger, less education, and shorter tenured,” will be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It was co-authored by Jessica Li of the University of Washington, Ya-Ru Chen of Cornell University, Joel Brockner of Columbia University, and Christina Wang of Tongji University in China.

Media contact: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (o); 319-541-8434 (c):