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To Trust or Not to Trust: Having Mixed Feeling about your Boss Hurts your Performance

For some of us, it is obvious whether we like or dislike our boss. They are clearly supportive or antagonistic, energizing or de-energizing, functional or dysfunctional, our friend or our enemy. But for others, it is not so simple. In fact, many relationships are both—we can at times trust, and other times distrust our boss; they may be supportive at times, and unsupportive at others.

Evidence suggests that ambivalent relationships—those that involve co-activated feelings of positivity and negativity toward a relational partner—are surprisingly common in organizations. People have mixed feelings about their team members and their employers, mentors can feel both proud and threatened by their protégés, and employees can have mixed feelings about their customers, managers, colleagues, and friends.

But, our relationships with our bosses are arguably the most important for our success at work, so it is critical that we have high quality, productive working relationships with them. Importantly, research suggests that feeling ambivalent about your boss hurts your performance even more that simply disliking them. This is consistent with research showing that ambivalent relationships are even more detrimental for our health and well-being than purely negative relationships. In fact, because ambivalent relationships can be so unpredictable (“how is my boss going to act toward me today?”), they are associated with increased stress, cardiovascular reactivity, ambulatory blood pressure, and cellular aging (yes, they make us age faster!).

A recent study published in the Journal of Management by Dr. Allan Lee and his colleagues showed that employees who have mixed feelings about their leaders had lower performance evaluations (which appears linked to feeling more negative emotions such as anxiety), even if they assessed the overall quality of their relationship as positive. However, the research also found that these detriments could be offset by supportive team members: they are well positioned to provide tailored empathy, support, and advice, and help their teammates cope with the emotional stress of an ambivalent relationship with their boss.

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