Dealing With An Abusive Supervisor? Will Distributive Justice Help? Nope…It Will Make It Worse!!

Topics: Workplace Deviance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (NOV 2010)
Article: Self-Gain or Self-Regulation Impairment? Tests of Competing Explanations of the Supervisor Abuse and Employee Deviance Relationship Through Perceptions of Distributive Justice
Authors: Stefan Thau and Marie S. Mitchell
Reviewed by: Mary Alice Crowe-Taylor 

A common research finding is that there is a clear relationship between supervisor abusiveness 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 quid pro quo view “The boss hurts me so I hurt back either by harming the boss or the organization”). 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. This 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.

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 more likely. Is it humanitarian to realize that good, just work outcomes do not negate the negative effects of an abusive boss? Yes, and preventing supervisor abuse is a key step in controlling employee deviance. So, big picture, identifying abusive supervisors and providing training on appropriate interaction with their employees is necessary for organizational effectiveness. Employees can also be taught interpersonal skills to deal with abusive others which, over time, would strengthen their self-resources and coping.

Self-gain or self-regulation impairment? Tests of competing explanations of the supervisor abuse and employee deviance relationship through perceptions of distributive justice.

Thau, Stefan; Mitchell, Marie S.; Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 95(6), Nov, 2010. pp. 1009-1031.