Leaders typically take responsibility when employees perform poorly but not when employees behave badly. It’s like there’s an unwritten rule that protects leaders when employees engage in deviant workplace behavior. Perhaps this protection stems from the notion that it isn’t fair to hold leaders accountable for the actions of a few bad apples.
Our research suggests that surprisingly often, this view of workplace deviance is misguided. We’ve found that leaders have a strong effect on whether employees engage in deviant behaviors. Thus, when employees act badly, their leaders would be wise to take a step back and consider whether and how they may be complicit in that behavior.
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Workplace deviance includes employee behaviors that violate organizational norms in ways that threaten the well-being of companies and their employees. Sometimes these behaviors are directed toward individuals, such as when an employee physically or verbally lashes out at a colleague or gossips with coworkers. Other times, deviant behaviors are directed toward an organization, such as when an employee steals workplace property or leaks confidential company information. The consequences of workplace deviance include productivity and inventory losses, as well as a host of other expenses that ultimately cost organizations billions of dollars annually.
Some leaders dismiss workplace deviance as an unavoidable side effect of apathetic or rebellious employees who either don’t care for or actively dislike their colleagues or employers. These bad apples do exist. Research shows that employees low in the personality traits of conscientiousness and agreeableness are more prone to workplace deviance. So are employees who exhibit socially malevolent personality markers referred to as the dark triad: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.
Given these findings, it’s easy to conclude that the “bad apple” argument makes sense. The problem is, research into the role of personality in workplace deviance does not consider the role that leaders play in employee behavior.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
To investigate the predictors of workplace deviance more broadly, we conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of workplace deviance research. Our study drew on data from 235 individual studies with a total of 66,990 respondents to examine the multitude of relationships researchers have identified between workplace deviance and various contributing factors.