What Goes Around, Comes Around

Employees’ supervisor-directed deviance, ranging from gossiping about a supervisor to acting rudely towards a supervisor, has costly consequences for organizations. Indeed, it has been estimated that the financial costs associated with employee deviance range up to billions of dollars per year in the Unites States alone (Bennett & Robinson, 2000). Previous research suggests that employees’ supervisor-directed deviance is a consequence of the treatment they receive from their leader. Put differently, how I as an employee behave towards my supervisor depends on how my supervisor treats me. But why is this the case?

Quid Pro Quo

Two main theories can help to explain this phenomenon. First, Social Exchange Theory (Homans, 1961) states that the actions of one party are reciprocated in a quid pro quo or tit-for-tat fashion by the other party. This implies that a supervisor’s mistreatment of an employee is reciprocated with supervisor-directed deviance on the part of an employee, whereas a supervisor’s positive treatment of an employee is rewarded with good behavior on the part of an employee. In short, if my supervisor abuses me I am more likely to ‘get back’ at my supervisor and show deviant behavior, whereas I do not experience any urge to behave in a deviant way when my supervisor treats me well.

I Mirror You

A second theory, that basically predicts the same outcome is Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977). According to Social Learning Theory people pick up social behavior either through direct experience or by observing others. Behaviors of role models, including the behavior of supervisors, are often mirrored. This means that if my supervisor abuses me I will copy this negative behavior and demonstrate deviant behavior in return. On the contrary, if my supervisor treats me well I would imitate the good treatment of my supervisor by withholding from deviant behavior and demonstrating good conduct in return.

You Reap What You Sow

We probably all know the excuse that is often used by younger children (and by some adults) when caught fighting: “but he/she started…”. What is striking about this example is not only that hostility is reciprocated with hostility, but that it appears as if the child does not feel guilty about hurting the other child in a fight because it is something that—in the mind of the child—the other child deserves.

Now imagine that you work under the supervision of an abusive boss. This boss is ridiculing you and putting you down in front of others. Now ask yourself how guilty you would feel if you would play a mean prank on this supervisor or say something hurtful to this boss. How likely is it that you would actually engage in this behavior? Repeat this exercise, but this time think about being supervised by a boss who treats you well. This boss listens to what you have to say and can be trusted. How guilty would you feel if you were to play a mean prank or say something hurtful to this boss? And how likely is it that you would actually show this behavior?

Most likely, you would anticipate feeling less guilty about deviating against the abusive boss than against the ethical boss. In turn, this lack of anticipation of feeling guilty would increase the chance of you engaging in behaviors such as saying something hurtful to the abusive boss.

Sanders’ dissertation research

In my dissertation research (Sanders, 2015), we test whether the anticipation of feeling guilty about deviating against one’s supervisor plays a crucial role in explaining why employees do not deviate against bosses who treat them well, but do deviate against abusive ones. For example, our studies demonstrated that employees faced with an abusive boss, as compared to an ethical boss, anticipate feeling less guilty about deviating against their boss. In turn, those who anticipated feeling less guilty gave more painfully hot sauce to their leader than those who anticipated stronger feelings of guilt.

To conclude, employees are expected to adopt a “what goes around, comes around” attitude in response to their supervisors. Whereas they may behave normally in response to a supervisor who demonstrates ethical leadership, they may display deviance in response to an abusive supervisor, because they are less inhibited by anticipated feelings of guilt.

Stacey Sanders defends her dissertation, titled: “Unearthing the Moral Emotive Compass: Exploring the paths to (un)ethical leadership” on this Thursday, October 22nd in the Academy Building.



Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bennett, R. J., & Robinson, S. L. (2003). The past, present, and future of workplace deviance research. In J. Greenberg (Ed.), Organizational behavior: The state of the science (2nd ed., pp. 247-281). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Homans, G. C. (1961). Social behavior. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World.

Sanders, S. (2015). Unearthing the Moral Emotive Compass: Exploring the paths to (un)ethical leadership. Doctoral dissertation, University of Groningen.


NOTE: I would like to thank my co-authors Barbara Wisse and Nico Van Yperen for their helpful comments, Eric Rietzschel for taking the pictures of me and my supervisor (Barbara Wisse), and all the students of the University of Groningen who voluntarily helped during the process of data collection.


Stacey Sanders is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Groningen. After finishing her Master in Work, Organizational, and Personnel Psychology and a Research Master in Behavioral and Social Sciences, she started her Ph.D. project on the role of emotions in predicting (consequences of) ethical and unethical leadership. She focuses on the influence of different emotions such as pride, contempt, and guilt on ethical leadership, abusive supervision, and leader self-serving behavior. In her work she often takes an integrated stance to explaining (un)ethical leader behavior by showing under what conditions emotions may be particularly likely to influence (un)ethical leader behavior. Moreover, she conducts research on the downstream consequences of (un)ethical leader behavior. In carrying out her research, she aims to employ different methods including (multi-source) field studies and laboratory experiments. More information on Stacey’s work can be found here.

Key Publication(s)

Sanders, S. (2015). Unearthing the Moral Emotive Compass: Exploring the paths to (un)ethical leadership. Doctoral dissertation, University of Groningen.

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