Why Do Supervisors Behave Nicely After Abusive Behavior?

group of coworkers
Topic(s): Counter-Productive Work Behavior, leadership
Publication: Personnel Psychology (2020)
Article: Making Nice or Faking Nice? Exploring Supervisors’ Two-Faced Response to Their Past Abusive Behavior
Authors: S.T. McClean, S.H. Courtright, J. Yim, T.A. Smith
Reviewed by: Jacqueline Marhefka

We know that abusive behavior from supervisors has a negative impact on employees. However, we do not know as much about the impact abusive supervision has on the supervisors themselves. After abusive behaviors, supervisors may try to compensate to make up for the negative impact they made. But do supervisors take action to make up for their previous abusive behavior because they truly want to make amends? Or do supervisors merely want to restore their positive image with subordinates and appear to be moral? 


Researchers of this study (McClean, Courtright, Yim, & Smith, 2020) surveyed a sample of supervisors multiple times a day over three weeks to try to explain their behavior. The first possibility that researchers considered is that following abusive behavior, supervisors may feel a moral shortage because their actions do not align with their sense of morality. Supervisors would then make amends with their employees. However, the researchers did not find support for this pattern of results.

The second pattern that researchers considered is that following abusive behavior, supervisors may feel concern that their social image of being seen as moral is threatened. To repair that image, supervisors would then engage in impression management. The researchers found support for this explanation. The day after abusive behavior occurred, supervisors felt more moral image concern and then exhibited more impression management. This included giving complements and praise to others, highlighting their own past accomplishments, and communicating how hard they have been working. These results show that instead of genuinely trying to repair harm after abusive behaviors, supervisors are more likely to enact behaviors to repair their image. 

But do all supervisors care about their moral image in the same way? The researchers also considered the role of moral identity symbolization, which describes how much someone personally values being seen as moral by others. The connection between abusive behaviors and moral image concern only occurred when supervisors had high moral identity symbolization and valued being seen by employees and others as moral. When moral identity symbolization was low, abusive behavior did not influence moral image concern the next day.


The results of this study show that supervisors are affected by their abusive behavior and may try to compensate for their behavior through impression management tactics. Organizations can leverage these findings in several useful ways. The researchers suggest offering ethics training to help supervisors monitor their moral identity symbolization so they are more likely to engage in impression managing behaviors to compensate for abusive behaviors. 

However, when selecting new supervisors, organizations would benefit from hiring people who are lower on moral identity symbolization, as they are less likely to have image concerns and engage in inauthentic impression management. This is particularly useful for organizations that promote an authentic leadership style or climate.

Additionally, supervisors would do well to consider how impression management tactics may come across as inauthentic when immediately following abusive behaviors. More genuine forms of making amends may be a more effective approach. 


McClean, S. T., Courtright, S. H., Yim, J., & Smith, T. A. (2020). Making nice or faking nice? Exploring supervisors’ twofaced response to their past abusive behavior. Personnel Psychology.