Bad Apples or Bad Leaders?

Before they can address workplace deviance, leaders need to recognize the role they may be playing.

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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.

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. We were able to use this data to assess the effects of both personality and leadership behaviors to better understand how well each predicts workplace deviance.

Our findings indicate that abusive supervision — one of many forms of destructive leadership that are prevalent in the workplace — is at least as strong a predictor of workplace deviance as employee personality. Abusive supervision is defined as subordinates’ perceptions of sustained supervisory hostility, excluding physical contact. As a set of behaviors, abusive supervision includes leaders reminding subordinates about their past failures, putting them down in front of others, and lying to them.

Moreover, just as employees’ acts of workplace deviance increase as leaders become more destructive, beneficial citizenship behaviors begin to decrease. That is, characteristically good employees can become quiet quitters — withholding positive behaviors, such as helping others and performing tasks outside of their immediate job description — when they think they’re working with abusive supervisors.

In addition, although some percentage of employees may be inherently prone to workplace deviance, we suspect it would be rare to find large groups of these employees in one place at any given time. It stands to reason that the greater the number of employees behaving badly, the more likely it is that their leaders are the root cause of the problem, particularly due to abusive behavior.

Characteristically good employees can become quiet quitters when they think they’re working with abusive supervisors.

Knowing all this, astute leaders should be asking themselves what role they are playing, however unintentional it may be, in encouraging employees to engage in workplace deviance.

Linking Targets to Motivations

Leaders may believe themselves to be free from blame if their employees’ deviance is not targeted directly at them, but this is not the case. Employees can act out toward leaders, organizations, or colleagues (or a combination of them). The targets of their bad behavior are usually fairly easy to identify: Engaging in insubordination and neglecting to follow instructions suggest that leaders are the target; stealing office supplies and sabotaging company equipment suggest that the organization is the target; and insulting or embarrassing coworkers suggests that colleagues are the target.

Indeed, sometimes the obvious target is the actual source of whatever perceived wrong the employee is acting out against. In a separate meta-analysis in which we examined abusive supervision and workplace deviance more broadly, we found that this relationship is particularly strong when the target of workplace deviance is the leader.

Savvy leaders realize that they cannot ignore the role they may play in their employees’ deviance.

However, it is possible for employees to view their leaders as representatives of the organization and, accordingly, act out against the organization for tolerating, enabling, or promoting an abusive leader. It is also possible that some employees are too nervous to consider acting out against their leaders or organizations, out of a fear of experiencing further abuse or being fired, among other potential consequences. These individuals may take in all of that abuse and then displace their negative responses by instead lashing out at their colleagues.

The point is that regardless of where employees target workplace deviance, it is still possible that leaders are the root cause. In fact, in another meta-analysis, we found that abusive supervision was almost equally associated with workplace deviance directed toward people and organizations.

This does not mean that leaders are always behind employees’ illicit motivations, but they play a role more often than they might expect — or want to admit. Savvy leaders realize that they cannot ignore the role they may play in their employees’ deviance simply because employees are not directly targeting them.

Finding the Flash Point

Leaders who want to better understand what, if any, role they may be playing in eliciting workplace deviance can take two initial steps. First, they should stop generalizing bad behavior as being indicative of a bad apple. Second, they should pause a moment before responding to acts of deviance. In that pause, they should try to identify exactly what prompted the employee’s behavior. What was the flash point? Was there an argument? Did the employee feel belittled or embarrassed by the leader?

Remember that an employee’s perception of abuse can be just as powerful as its reality. Each employee determines what they consider abusive, so there is an inherent problem in trying to define it: Leaders’ behaviors cannot be considered universally positive or negative, because employees filter and judge each behavior independently. But the problem of perception also harbors a benefit: It reinforces the notion that leaders should develop individual relationships with their subordinates; they are not leading an organization of faceless employees who all act and behave in the same way.

Thus, it is imperative for leaders to consider whether their subordinates could have construed their words or actions as abusive. Rather than assuring themselves that no employee should feel hurt by what they did or said, the leader should ask the employee what prompted the bad behavior.

It is, of course, possible that the flash point was unrelated to the leader and could have stemmed from an organizational decision or policy or from coworkers’ actions. It is just as important to determine these flash points; even policies that are enacted in good faith can be misguided and viewed as damaging by employees. When leaders seek out flash points, they have a better chance of getting to the bottom of workplace deviance and perhaps preventing it in the future.

It’s easy to blame workplace deviance on bad apples, but our research suggests that doing so misses another likely cause: leaders themselves. Great leaders inspire employees to perform well. Reducing the frequency and impact of workplace deviance is an important part of that work.


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