Does Good Pay Soften the Effects of Abusive Leadership?

A common research finding is that there is a clear relationship between supervisor abuse and deviant employee behavior: More abuse, more deviance. Why do employees who are abused by their supervisors engage in behavior that is harmful to their organizations or its members?

One explanation is self-gain theory, which assumes rational behavioral choices are made to “even out” the social exchange with the boss. A second explanation is self-regulation impairment, which is not as rational. Rather, the employee’s attention and willpower are drained by trying to deal with the abuse, so they aren’t rationally assessing the consequences of their actions and don’t self-regulate well. Deviant behavior results.


Some theorists have proposed that distributive justice (like fair compensation) might lessen the negative effects of supervisory abuse. Likewise, many people kid themselves into thinking that they can stand working for an awful boss if the pay is good.

The current research shows that, contrary to this urban myth, distributive justice results in a stronger relationship between supervisory abuse and employee deviance, not a weaker one. Attempting to deal with the inconsistent messages of “You are a valuable, well paid employee” and “You are a rotten employee” results in more occurrences of employee deviance, not less. Interestingly, the better pay actually makes the situation more difficult for the employee to handle as it creates more dissonance. This dissonance is cognitively taxing, absorbing the resources needed to self-regulate behavior.


The bottom line is that distributive justice does not reduce the occurrence of deviant behaviors made by employees in response to abusive supervision, rather it increases their occurrence. The cognitive dissonance created impairs self-regulation, which makes employee deviance even more likely.

Identifying abusive supervisors and providing training on appropriate employee interactions is necessary for organizational effectiveness. Employees can also be taught interpersonal skills to deal with abusive bosses. Over time, this can strengthen self-resources and ability to cope.


Thau, S., & Mitchell, M. S. (2010). Self-gain or self-regulation impairment? Tests of competing explanations of the supervisor abuse and employee deviance relationship through perceptions of distributive justice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 1009–1031.