Abusive Supervision, Workplace Deviance & the Moderating Effects of Negative Reciprocity Beliefs
Mitchell, Ambrose
In this study, the authors examine the relationship between abusive supervision and employee
workplace deviance. The authors conceptualize abusive supervision as a type of aggression. They use
work on retaliation and direct and displaced aggression as a foundation for examining employees’
reactions to abusive supervision. Additionally, the authors examine the moderating effects of
negative reciprocity beliefs.
Tepper (2000) defined abusive supervision as the “subordinates’ perceptions of the extent to which
their supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors,
excluding physical contact” (p. 178). Ashforth (1997) described abusive managers as those who
callously and arbitrarily use their power and authority to mistreat employees. Abusive supervisors
are known to use derogatory names, yell and scream, intimidate, withhold needed information, and
humiliate and ridicule their employees (Keashly, 1998).
Research on abusive supervision has generally taken either an organizational justice or a reactance
theory approach to understanding employee reactions. From a justice perspective, employees react
to the perceived unfairness of the abusive supervisor’s behavior. When employees feel they are
treated unfairly, positive attitudes and behavior suffer (Tepper, 2000; Tepper et al., 1998).
Reactance theory suggests that individuals strive to maintain personal control (Brehm & Brehm,
1981; Wright & Brehm, 1982). Researchers suggest that employees dealing with an abusive
supervisor usually feel little or no control. As a result, individuals engage in behavior to restore
personal autonomy (e.g., decrease organizational citizenship behaviors; Zellars et al., 2002).
In this article, abusive supervision is conceptualized as a type of aggression (behaviors perceived by
the employee as intentionally harmful; Baron, 2005). Also, it investigates the relationship b/w
abusive supervision and employee deviance directed at the supervisor, organization and other
individuals. Further it talks about the moderating effects of negative reciprocity beliefs. A negative
reciprocity orientation is the tendency for an individual to return negative treatment for negative
treatment (Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005).
Abusive Supervision:
Effect on employee attitudes: Research shows that abusive supervision is related to lower levels of
satisfaction, commitment, and justice perceptions, and higher levels of turnover, role conflict, and
psychological distress (Ashforth, 1997; Duffy, Ganster, & Pagon, 2002; Tepper, 2000). Studies by
Tepper suggests that abusive supervision has negative effects on organizational citizenship
behaviour (OCB) and also the genuineness of their peers OCB. Study on injustice and retaliation,
Skarlicki and Folger (1997) found that conditions of multiple unfairness (distributive, procedural, and
interactional) were associated with higher levels of organizational retaliatory behavior. Notably,
these behaviors are characterized by both direct and displaced methods of retaliation (e.g.,
disobeyed supervisor’s instructions, left a mess unnecessarily, spread rumors about coworkers). We
suggest employees engage in deviant behaviour to retaliate directly against their abusive supervisor,
and they may also engage in displaced deviant behaviour.
Workplace Deviance: Workplace deviance is purposeful behaviour that violates organizational norms
and is intended to harm the organization, its employees, or both (Bennett & Robinson, 2003). There
are two basic types of deviance: organizational and interpersonal. Organizational deviance is
deviance directed toward the organization (e.g., shirking hours, purposefully extending overtime),
and interpersonal deviance is deviance directed toward individuals (e.g., verbal abuse, sexual
harassment). Interpersonal deviance can further be divided into two types: deviant behaviours
targeted against supervisors and those targeted at other individuals (Hershcovis et al., 2007).
Retaliation involves the desire to punish an offender for unwarranted and malicious acts (Averill,
1982). Retaliation refers to behavior that seeks to “make the wrongdoer pay” for an event that
harms or jeopardizes the victim in some meaningful way (Skarlicki & Folger, 2004, p. 374). 2004).
Empirical evidence demonstrates that individuals retaliate against perceived injustices, threats to
identity, violations of trust, and personal offense. When individuals feel they have been mistreated,
retaliation is a deliberate, rational response (Bies & Tripp, 1996). Supervisors are reported to be the
most prominent source of bullying at work (Neuman & Keashly, 2003). Indeed, both theoretical and
empirical research suggests abusive supervision is related to retaliation. Jones (2003) found that
interactional injustice from an authority was significantly related to supervisor-directed retaliation.
Further, a recent meta-analysis by Hershcovis et al. (2007) found that unfair supervisor treatment
was a strong predictor of supervisor-targeted aggression.
Research on displaced aggression suggests that individuals who become angry and frustrated by a
harm-doer may displace their aggression on individuals who are not the source of the harm (Dollard
et al., 1939). Dollard et al. (1939) offered two reasons why individuals displace aggression. First, the
harm-doer may not be available to retaliate against. Second, the victim may fear further retaliation
from the harm-doer. Should either of these constraints occur, direct retaliation is curbed (Baron,
1971) and aggressive behaviours may be redirected or displaced on less powerful or more available
targets (e.g., co-workers; Miller, 1941).
The study conducted in this article supported the following three hypotheses:
a) Abusive supervision will be positively related to supervisor-directed deviance.
b) Abusive supervision will be positively related to organizational deviance.
c) Abusive supervision will be positively related to (nonsupervisory) interpersonal deviance.
Moderating Effects of Negative Reciprocity Beliefs:
Individuals vary in their beliefs about the appropriateness of negative reciprocity. Some may believe
that it is acceptable to retaliate in return of an unfavourable treatment, however some feels it is
acceptable to “turn the other cheek”. Those who hold strong negative reciprocity beliefs are more
likely to seek retaliation than avoidance (McLean Parks, 1998).
The study in this article supports the hypothesis that ‘Negative reciprocity beliefs will moderate the
relationship between abusive supervision and supervisor directed deviance but will not moderate
the relationship between abusive supervision and other forms of deviance (organizational or
interpersonal). Abusive supervision will be more strongly related to supervisor-directed deviance
when individuals more strongly believe in negative reciprocity.’
To summarize: Previous research demonstrates abusive supervision negatively affects employee
attitudes and employees’ willingness to engage in positive behaviour. The results of this study show
abusive supervision influences employees’ willingness to engage in negative behaviour as well.
Specifically, abusive supervision is positively related to all types of employee deviance. Moreover,
the relationship between abusive supervision and supervisor-directed deviance is stronger for
employees with stronger negative reciprocity beliefs. Abusive supervisory behaviour is associated
not only with harm to the source of the abuse but also “collateral” damage to the organization and
others in the workplace. It also talks about the anger trait (which is linked with theories of
frustration-aggression). It was positively related to supervisor-directed and interpersonal deviance,
but not organizational deviance.

Abusive Supervision, Workplace Deviance & the Moderating Effects