J Bus Ethics (2013) 118:623–634
Standing by Your Organization: The Impact of Organizational
Identiﬁcation and Abusive Supervision on Followers’ Perceived
Cohesion and Tendency to Gossip
Stijn Decoster • Jeroen Camps • Jeroen Stouten
Lore Vandevyvere • Thomas M. Tripp
Received: 16 January 2012 / Accepted: 28 December 2012 / Published online: 8 January 2013
Ó Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013
Abstract Abusive supervision has been shown to have
signiﬁcant negative consequences for employees’ wellbeing, attitudes, and behavior. However, despite the devastating impact, it might well be that employees do not
always react negatively toward a leader’s abusive behavior.
In the present study, we show that employees’ organizational identiﬁcation and abusive supervision interact for
employees’ perceived cohesion with their work group and
their tendency to gossip about their leader. Employees
confronted with a highly abusive supervisor had a stronger
perceived cohesion and engaged in less gossiping behavior
when they identiﬁed more strongly with their organization.
Our ﬁndings illustrate that organizational identiﬁcation
functions as a buffer for those confronted with an abusive
Keywords Abusive supervision Á Organizational
identiﬁcation Á Cohesion Á Gossip Á Rumor
A fact of organizational life is that leaders do not always
act in a responsible and ethical manner (e.g., De Cremer
2003; Samuelson and Messick 1995). That is, supervisors
have shown to use abusive language toward their subordinates, humiliate them in front of others, intimidate or
threaten them, withhold information from them, or behave
S. Decoster (&) Á J. Camps Á J. Stouten Á L. Vandevyvere
Department of Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat
102, Box 3725, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
T. M. Tripp
Washington State University, 14204 NE Salmon Creek Avenue,
Vancouver, WA, USA
aggressively (Bies and Tripp 1998; Zellars et al. 2002).
Researchers revealed that abusive supervision has a negative impact on employees’ well-being, satisfaction, commitment, and performance (Bamberger and Bacharach
2006; Hornstein 1996; Mitchell and Ambrose 2007; Tepper
2000, 2007; Tepper et al. 2004, 2001; Zellars et al. 2002).
However, it may well be that employees not always react
negatively to their abusive supervisor. That is, despite the
severity of leaders’ abusive behavior, followers do not always
turn to disapproval or counteractions (Stouten and Tripp
2009). Here, we will explore the buffering role of organizational identiﬁcation (i.e., the psychologic attachment that
emerges when members adopt the critical characteristics of
the organization as deﬁning characteristics of themselves; see
Dutton et al. 1994) for employees who are confronted with an
abusive supervisor. More speciﬁcally, since abusive supervision has been found to have a negative impact on employees’
loyalty to their work group (Mitchell and Ambrose 2007), we
focus on employees’ perceived cohesion with their work
group. Further, as a result of an abusive supervisor, we also
examine followers’ retaliatory reactions (i.e., reactions in
order to get even with their supervisor), more speciﬁcally
employees’ tendency to gossip about their leader.
In sum, we propose that when confronted with an abusive supervisor, employees who identify with their organization are more likely to feel part of their work group and
will be less likely to gossip about their supervisor. Below,
we will discuss this rationale in greater detail.
Tepper (2000, p. 178) deﬁnes abusive supervision as
‘‘subordinates’ perceptions of the extent to which supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and
nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact.’’ Abusive
supervisors are known to intimidate and humiliate, use
derogatory names, shout, and ridicule their employees.
Estimates suggest that more than 13 % of working people
in the United States become targets of abusive supervision
or non-physical hostility perpetrated by employees’
immediate superiors (Schat et al. 2006). These consequences translate into annual losses of an estimated $23.8
billion in increased health care costs, workplace withdrawal, and lost productivity (Tepper et al. 2009).
During the past decade, a growing body of literature has
focused on the negative consequences of abusive supervision. For example, abusive supervision has been found to
be negatively related to organizational outcomes such as
affective commitment, organizational citizenship behaviors, job and life satisfaction, and self-efﬁcacy (Tepper
2000, 2007; Zellars et al. 2002). Further, abusive supervision has been found to be positively related to negative
outcomes, for example, counterproductive behaviors,
turnover intentions, work-family conﬂict, psychologic
distress, as well as somatic health complaints (Duffy et al.
2002; Tepper 2000; Zellars et al. 2002). Moreover, abusive
supervision is positively related to supervisor-directed
deviance (e.g., gossiping about or acting impolite toward
one’s supervisor) as well as organizational and interpersonal deviance (Mayer et al. 2012; Mitchell and Ambrose
2007). In sum, in the event of an abusive supervisor,
employees not only feel less connected to their leader but
also feel less connected to their organization, their colleagues, and their job (cf. perceived cohesion).
S. Decoster et al.
organizational variable since high levels of perceived
cohesion have a positive effect on organizational outcomes,
whereas low levels of cohesion can hurt organizations.
Essential for group cohesion to exist, members of the
group have to work together and thus maintain some form
of interpersonal relationship (Bass 1960; Stogdill 1972). As
one such important interpersonal relationship concerns the
relationship between employees and their leader, the way a
leader treats his or her employees will affect employees’
perceived cohesion (Wu et al. 2007).
As abusive supervision can be regarded as an extreme
example of negative interpersonal behavior, employees
will suffer from their leaders’ mistreatment, resulting in
decreased perceived cohesion. In order to explain the
relationship between abusive supervision and perceived
cohesion, we draw on social exchange theory (Blau 1964;
Cropanzano and Mitchell 2005), which states that individuals are sensitive to valued outcomes they receive and
that they are motivated to reciprocate these outcomes. If
followers perceive to receive valued outcomes, they may
reciprocate these outcomes by feeling more cohesive with
their team. In contrast, when followers’ outcomes are
negative, they are expected to reciprocate in a negative way
in order to restore the balance. Indeed, previous research
pointed out that abusive supervision has a negative impact
on the relationships coworkers have with each other. For
example, employees who are confronted with an abusive
supervisor engage in less organizational citizenship
behaviors toward their coworkers (Aryee et al. 2007; Xu
et al. 2012) and display more negative behavior toward
coworkers of their work group (Mitchell and Ambrose
Abusive Supervision and Employees’ Perceived
Perceived cohesion describes the individual’s perception of
one’s relationship with and the resulting force to remain in
his or her group (Bollen and Hoyle 1990). Bollen and
Hoyle (1990, p. 482) propose that perceived cohesion can
be deﬁned as ‘‘the extent to which individual group
members feel ‘stuck to’, or a part of, particular social
groups.’’ Hence, their formal deﬁnition states that ‘‘perceived cohesion encompasses an individual’s sense of
belonging to a particular group and his or her feelings of
morale associated with membership in the group.’’ Perceived cohesion is a valuable good for organizations since
it has a beneﬁcial impact on a wide range of group-related
and organizational outcomes. For example, it has been
associated with lower turnover and absenteeism (Price and
Mueller 1981; Shader et al. 2001), enhanced levels of
organizational commitment and job satisfaction (Wech
et al. 1998), and increased performance (Mullen and
Copper 1994). In sum, perceived cohesion is an important
Abusive Supervision and Employees’ Tendency
When confronted with an abusive supervisor, drawing on
social exchange theory, followers reciprocate in a negative
way, such as engaging in gossiping behavior. This is in line
with previous research that pointed out that when
employees feel they are treated in a negative way (e.g.,
being intimidated, humiliated, ridiculed, or being yelled
at), they react with deviant behaviors to get back at the one
who mistreated them (Bennett and Robinson 2003; Robinson and Greenberg 1998). Indeed, employees tend to
react to their leader’s abusive behavior by engaging in
supervisor-directed deviance in order to harm their supervisor or to ‘‘get even’’ (Dupre et al. 2006; Inness et al.
2005; Mitchell and Ambrose 2007; Tepper et al. 2009;
Thau and Mitchell 2010). Although several studies have
provided evidence for this line of reasoning, reacting to the
offender is often not without danger for oneself as this
Standing by Your Organization
might result in renewed interpersonal mistreatment by the
other party, especially when the other party has an elevated
level of power (Aquino et al. 2001; Bies and Tripp 1996).
For example, research indicates that employees are less
likely to react when there exists a high power distance
between themselves and the person who engages in abusive
supervisory behavior (Wang et al. 2012). Given the hierarchical nature of the relationship between an employee
and his/her direct supervisor, turning to overt reactions is
likely to be a costly action for oneself. As a result,
employees will opt for behavior that involves smaller
potential costs, but still provides them with an opportunity
to ‘‘get even,’’ such as gossip (Archer and Coyne 2005).
Gossip can be described as ‘‘verbal or written communication that regards personal matters of a third party’’
(Nevo et al. 1993, p. 975) that people use to gain information about one’s social environment and to manipulate
others with the goal to raise one’s own status (Rosnow
1977). Traditionally, gossip is seen as a socially undesirable activity with negative effects for both the person that
is the target of gossip (Noon and Delbridge 1993) and
one’s organization as it can lower morale and productivity
(Baker and Jones 1996; DiFonzo and Bordia 2000; DiFonzo et al. 1994). However, more recent studies pointed
out that gossip can promote the existence of groups
because it often is a response to the observation of antisocial behavior (Feinberg et al. 2012). That is, when possible transgressors who behave in a self-interested way are
observed, the gossiper can warn the other group members
about this behavior by sharing information about these
transgressors. In this way, gossip can be viewed as an
efﬁcient tool of punishment in order to constrain future
self-serving behavior (Beersma and Van Kleef 2011).
The Buffering Role of Organizational Identiﬁcation
for Employees who are Confronted with an Abusive
As discussed above, when confronted with an abusive
supervisor, followers tend to react in a negative way (Tepper
2000; Zellars et al. 2002), for example by showing deviant
behavior toward the leader and the organization (Duffy et al.
2002; Mitchell and Ambrose 2007). Recently, however, it
has been argued that, depending on the situation, followers’
reactions may not always be negative (Stouten et al. 2005;
Stouten and Tripp 2009). For example, leaders’ behavior is
often tolerated because leaders have an important inﬂuence
in promotion procedures, evaluations, and how employees
are allowed to carry out their work (Camps et al. 2012; Hogan
et al. 1994; Yukl 1998). Stouten and Tripp (2009) argued that
leaders and followers are held against different rules. Consequently, leaders’ abusive behavior may not always result in
disapproval or counteractions. Often, employees consider
that they are not in a position to help others or themselves by
responding with overt behavior toward the leader (Frost
2004; Lord 1998). These ﬁndings are consistent with the
argument that employees generally feel that they cannot raise
an issue of concern to their bosses (Uhl-Bien and Carsten
2007). We build upon this line of research and argue that
there are boundary conditions on the negative effects of
abusive supervision on employee outcomes. Exploring such
boundary conditions will allow for understanding when and
thus why employees may react toward an abusive supervisor.
In this study, we argue that the extent to which employees
identify with their organization plays an integral role in how
employees will react to an abusive supervisor. More speciﬁcally, in situations where followers are confronted with an
abusive supervisor, we expect that employees who identify
with their organization are more likely to feel part of their
work group (i.e., perceived cohesion) and will be less likely
to gossip about their supervisor.
Organizational Identiﬁcation and Social Identity
Mael and Ashforth (1992, p. 109) deﬁned organizational
identiﬁcation as ‘‘a perceived oneness with an organization
and the experience of the organization’s successes and
failures as one’s own.’’ The conceptualization of organizational identiﬁcation is rooted in social identity theory
(Tajfel 1978; Tajfel and Turner 1979; Turner 1982). Tajfel
(1978, p. 67) deﬁned social identity as ‘‘that part of an
individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his or her membership of a social group [or groups]
together with the value and emotional signiﬁcance attached
to that membership.’’
According to social identity theory (Tajfel 1978; Tajfel
and Turner 1979), individuals are striving toward a positive
self-image, which is partly based not only on their personal
identity (e.g., I am reliable, I am creative) but also on their
social identity (e.g., I am a member of the athletics team X, I
am an employee of organization Y), which they derive from
social groups they are a member of. Because being part of a
group has an impact on one’s self-image, group members
usually evaluate their groups positively and especially more
positive than other groups (Tajfel 1978). As a result, their
group and their evaluation of it become more important for
their self-image. The more positive an employee assesses
one’s organization, the more important one’s organization
becomes for his or her self-image. Thus, according to Dutton
et al. (1994, p. 242), ‘‘the strength of a member’s organizational identiﬁcation reﬂects the degree to which the content
of the member’s self-concept is tied to his or her organizational membership.’’
The Buffering Role of Organizational Identiﬁcation
According to Ashforth and Mael (1989), organizational
identiﬁcation has a supportive and positive inﬂuence on
employees’ satisfaction and the effectiveness of the organization. For example, it increases long-term commitment
and support, physical well-being, job satisfaction, and
motivation (Mael and Ashforth 1992; Van Dick and
Wagner 2002). Organizational identiﬁcation also has a
positive effect on cooperative and organizational citizenship behaviors and on actual performance (Dukerich et al.
2002; Stellmachter et al. 2002, 2003). Moreover, organizational identiﬁcation is negatively related to turnover
intentions (Van Knippenberg and Van Schie 2000).
Hence, organizational identiﬁcation has a positive inﬂuence in such a way that employees who identify with their
organization are likely to support their organization both in
good and in bad times (Ashforth and Mael 1989; Dukerich
et al. 2002; Mael and Ashforth 1992; Stellmachter et al.
2002, 2003; Van Dick et al. 2006; Van Dick and Wagner
2002; Van Knippenberg et al. 2007; Van Knippenberg and
Van Schie 2000). For example, Ashforth and Mael (1989,
p. 28) stated that ‘‘identiﬁcation provides a mechanism
whereby an individual can continue to believe in the integrity
of his or her organization despite wrongdoing by senior
management.’’ In fact, research supports this assumption that
organizational identiﬁcation goes a long way in employees’
reliance in difﬁcult situations. For example, in organizations
in transition, employees with a high (pre-merger) organizational identiﬁcation have less turnover intentions and negative feelings as well as higher satisfaction and more
citizenship behaviors (Van Dick et al. 2006). Moreover,
organizational identiﬁcation buffers the negative impact of
low organizational support on deviant behavior, such as
employees’ absenteeism and turnover intentions (Van
Knippenberg et al. 2007).
Given that employees who identify with the organization
are likely to support their company in good and bad times, we
build on this research by arguing that organizational identiﬁcation also will protect employees against the highly negative effects of abusive supervision. More speciﬁcally, when
confronted with an abusive supervisor, employees who
identify with their organization are more likely to feel connected (i.e., perceived cohesion) with their colleagues and
will be less likely to gossip about their supervisor.
Perceived Cohesion and Organizational Identiﬁcation
Drawing on social identity theory, the more important one’s
organization becomes for one’s self-image, the stronger
one’s cohesion with the organizational members will be
(Ashforth and Mael 1989; Tajfel 1978; Tajfel and Turner
S. Decoster et al.
1979; Turner 1982, 1984). Moreover, social-categorization
theory (Turner 1985; Turner et al. 1987) states that when
group members perceive themselves as part of a particular
social category (e.g., their organization), they minimize the
differences within that social category. Given the buffering
role of organizational identiﬁcation (Lipponen et al. 2011)
and the negative impact abusive supervision will have on
perceived cohesion (Wu et al. 2007), we expect that
Hypothesis 1 Organizational identiﬁcation and abusive
supervision interact with regard to perceived cohesion. More
speciﬁcally, we expect that in the presence of an abusive
supervisor, employees’ perceived cohesion will be stronger
if their organizational identiﬁcation is high rather than low.
Tendency to Gossip and Organizational Identiﬁcation
Gossiping behavior has been shown to result in detrimental
consequences not only for the target but also for the
organization as a whole (Baker and Jones 1996; DiFonzo
et al. 1994; DiFonzo and Bordia 2000). As discussed
above, even though employees will be inclined to engage
in (covert) reactions (such as gossiping) in the situation of
an abusive supervisor, employees who value their organization (i.e., identify with their organization) will be less
inclined to engage in gossip as they try to protect the
organization’s image from potential harmful consequences.
Taken together, we expect that
Hypothesis 2 Organizational identiﬁcation and abusive
supervision interact with regard to employees’ tendency to
gossip. More speciﬁcally, we expect that employees facing
an abusive supervisor will gossip less if their organizational identiﬁcation is high rather than low.
Participants and Procedure
We recruited participants using a snowball sampling procedure (e.g., Mayer et al. 2009; Morgeson and Humphrey
2006). Undergraduate students were contacted by the
researchers and were asked to invite participants to complete the study (as partial fulﬁllment of an undergraduate
course). Two hundred twenty-four employees were invited
to voluntarily take part in a study concerning the wellbeing of people in organizations. Paper versions were
handed out to employees from organizations in Flanders,
Belgium. Employees were asked to hand deliver the
supervisor’s survey and all surveys were returned in sealed
envelopes to the university in order to assure anonymity.
Employees were matched with their supervisor using a
Standing by Your Organization
speciﬁc code allowing for anonymous participation. Participants were from a variety of different organizations,
including telecommunication, health care, manufacturing,
government, technology, and ﬁnancial organizations. The
surveys that were returned resulted in hundred thirty-four
dyads of employees and their matched direct supervisors,
yielding an overall response rate of 59.8 %. Of the
employees’ sample, 40.3 % were male. The mean age was
38.89 years (range 20–58 years; SD = 10.86). Seventytwo percent of the employees worked fulltime, 47 % of
employees only completed high school, and 52.2 %
obtained a college degree. Employees had an average
organizational tenure of 13.15 years (SD = 11.52) and had
an average team size of 12 workers (SD = 14.03).
Of the supervisors’ sample, 43.1 % were male and the
mean age was 47 years (range 26–58 years; SD = 7.57).
Ninety percent of the supervisors worked fulltime, 31.4 %
of supervisors only completed high school, and 68.6 %
obtained a college degree. On average supervisors’ job
tenure amounted to 9 years (SD = 5.85) and they supervised a team of on average 15 employees (SD = 17.31).
Employees completed measures of abusive supervision,
perceived cohesion, and organizational identiﬁcation.
Supervisors reported subordinates’ tendency to gossip. All
items were completed on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from
1 (never/strongly disagree) to 5 (very often/strongly agree).
Abusive supervision was assessed with Tepper’s (2000)
15-item abusive supervision scale. Example items are ‘‘my
supervisor ridicules me’’ and ‘‘my supervisor blames me to
save himself/herself embarrassment’’ (Cronbach’s a = .94).
scale refers to school groups, we adapted the scale to the
purpose of this study by altering the reference point (Chin
et al. 1999). That is, employees read that these six items
referred to their work group (i.e., employees working for the
same supervisor) and were asked to respond to the questions
with this in mind. Example items are ‘‘I feel that I belong to
this group,’’ ‘‘I am happy to be part of this group,’’ and ‘‘this
group is one of the best’’ (Cronbach’s a = .96).
Tendency to Gossip
Employees’ tendency to gossip was measured with eight
items of the 20-item Tendency to Gossip Scale (Nevo et al.
1993). We opted to collect this data from the supervisors
rather than from their employees. As discussed earlier,
gossip might result in harmful consequences for the target
of the gossiping behavior such as feelings of social isolation (see Elias 1994; Soeters and van Iterson 2002).
Although it can be argued that a leader is not always aware
of the extent to which his/her employees gossip about him
or her, we believe that leaders do have such information at
hand (see Grosser et al. 2010). That is, gossip is widely
used: It is expected to constitute 65 % of all spoken
communication (Dunbar 2004). Indeed, Grosser et al.
(2010) showed that supervisors are aware of follower
gossiping as they punish gossipers with low-performance
ratings. Moreover, because people are more sensitive to
perceptions of the environment rather than the actual
environment itself (Lewin 1951), we focus on supervisor
perceptions of gossip rather than actual gossip. Indeed,
gossip is more likely to have a negative inﬂuence and
impact on supervisors if they perceive gossip to exist. For
this measure, only items that were relevant for the work
situation were chosen. Sample items are ‘‘my subordinates
like to talk about my clothes and appearance with their coworkers,’’ ‘‘my subordinates like to talk about the problems
I encounter at work,’’ and ‘‘my subordinates have the
tendency to gossip about me’’ (Cronbach’s a = .79).
Employees’ organizational identiﬁcation was assessed with
Mael and Ashforth’s (1992) six-item organizational identiﬁcation scale. Example items are ‘‘when someone criticizes my organization, it feels like a personal insult’’ and
‘‘the organization’s successes are my successes’’ (Cronbach’s a = .81).
Perceived cohesion was measured with Bollen and Hoyle’s
(1990) six-item perceived cohesion scale. As the original
Based on previous research, we controlled for several factors
that have been shown to be related to one (or more) of the
variables incorporated in our hypotheses. More speciﬁcally,
we controlled for employees’ age as it has been shown to be
related to both organizational identiﬁcation (Riketta 2005)
and deviant behavior (Aquino and Douglas 2003). We also
controlled for employees’ gender as gender is related to both
organizational identiﬁcation (Riketta 2005) and interpersonal deviance (Henle et al. 2005). Finally, we controlled for
employees’ organizational tenure as previous research
S. Decoster et al.
revealed it to be related to employees’ organizational identiﬁcation (Hall et al. 1970; Riketta 2005) and perceived
cohesion (Gilbert and Tang 1998).
gossip (Table 2). More important, the interaction between
abusive supervision and organizational identiﬁcation was
signiﬁcant (Fig. 2). Table 2 presents the results of the
regression analyses. Simple slopes analyses showed that in
the presence of an abusive supervisor, organizational
identiﬁcation was negatively related to employees’ tendency to gossip (b = -.14, pone-tailed .05). However, this
relationship was not signiﬁcant when employees perceived
their supervisor as being low on abusive supervision
(b = .14, pone-tailed = .07). These ﬁndings provide support
for Hypothesis 2.
All data were analyzed by conducting stepwise, hierarchical
regression analyses. In step 1 of the regression analyses, we
entered the demographic variables age, gender (0 = female,
1 = male), and organizational tenure. In step 2, we entered
abusive supervision and organizational identiﬁcation. In step
3, we predicted the interactive relationship between abusive
supervision and organizational identiﬁcation for the dependent variables of interest, perceived cohesion, and tendency
to gossip. The independent variables abusive supervision and
organizational identiﬁcation were centered to avoid multicollinearity (Aiken and West 1991). Table 1 presents the
descriptive statistics and intercorrelations.
Research recently revealed that abusive supervision has a
signiﬁcant negative impact on the attitudes, well-being, and
behavior of employees (e.g., Duffy et al. 2002; Mitchell and
Ambrose 2007; Zellars et al. 2002). Here, we argued that
employees will not necessarily react negatively toward an
abusive supervisor. That is, we reasoned that there are
boundary conditions to the reactions of employees toward an
abusive supervisor. More speciﬁcally, it was put forward that
as employees identify with their organization, they are
expected to show weaker negative reactions to an abusive
supervisor in terms of perceptions of cohesion and gossiping
since organizational identiﬁcation has a buffering effect on
followers’ negative reactions to abusive supervision.
Consistent with Hypothesis 1, employees’ organizational
identiﬁcation is particularly important for how employees
react to an abusive supervisor with regard to perceived
cohesion. Employees confronted with an abusive supervisor
had a stronger perceived cohesion to their work group when
their organizational identiﬁcation was high rather than low.
Similarly, when confronted with an abusive supervisor,
employees’ organizational identiﬁcation could be shown to
buffer employees’ tendency to gossip about their leader. That
is, when a leader was considered as abusive by his/her
employees, (s)he perceived employees to gossip less when
organizational identiﬁcation was high versus low. Consequently, results also conﬁrmed Hypothesis 2. Therefore, we
argue that organizational identiﬁcation functions as a
First of all, regression analysis revealed a signiﬁcant negative relationship between abusive supervision and perceived
cohesion (Table 2). More important, the interaction between
abusive supervision and organizational identiﬁcation was
signiﬁcant (Fig. 1). Simple slopes analyses (Aiken and West
1991) showed that for employees who were confronted with
an abusive supervisor, organizational identiﬁcation was
positively related to employees’ perceived cohesion (b =
.34, pone-tailed .01). However, the relationship between
organizational identiﬁcation and perceived cohesion was not
signiﬁcant when employees perceived their supervisor as
being low on abusive supervision (b = .01, ponetailed = .49). This provides support for Hypothesis 1.
Tendency to Gossip
Regression analysis revealed no signiﬁcant negative relationship between abusive supervision and tendency to
Table 1 Means, standard
deviations, and intercorrelations
5. Organizational identiﬁcation
* p .05.; ** p .001
4. Abusive supervision
N = 134
3. Organizational tenure
6. Perceived cohesion
7. Tendency to gossip
Standing by Your Organization
Table 2 Results of the hierarchical regression analyses for the
moderating effect of organizational identity (N = 134)
Abusive supervision 9
Values are standardized regression weights
* p .05.; ** p .01.; *** p .001
Fig. 2 Interaction between abusive supervision and organizational
identiﬁcation on tendency to gossip
Fig. 1 Interaction between abusive supervision and organizational
identiﬁcation on perceived cohesion
protecting mechanism for the negative consequences of
abusive supervision. Below, we will discuss these ﬁndings in
We added to the growing body of research on abusive
supervision that showed the negative consequences of
abusive supervision on attitudes, well-being, and behavior
of employees (Duffy et al. 2002; Mitchell and Ambrose
2007; Tepper 2000, 2007; Zellars et al. 2002). Previous
research showed that employees who identify with their
organization experience more positive outcomes concerning attitudes, well-being, and behaviors, even in difﬁcult
and personal enduring contexts (Ashforth and Mael 1989;
Dukerich et al. 2002; Mael and Ashforth 1992; Stellmacher
et al. 2003; Van Dick et al. 2006; Van Dick and Wagner
2002; Van Knippenberg et al. 2007; Van Knippenberg and
Van Schie 2000). Here, we showed that employees who
identify with their organization showed weaker negative
reactions when they were confronted with an abusive
Social identity research argues that group members
strive toward a positive self-image which is partly derived
from one’s social groups (Tajfel 1978; Tajfel and Turner
1979; Turner 1982). In this study, we examined this by
means of employees who consider themselves part of their
organization—organizational identiﬁcation. Because of the
link between employees’ self-image and their organizational membership, employees evaluate their organization
positively, even more so than they perceive other organizations (Tajfel 1978). As a result, employees with strong
organizational identiﬁcation support their organization in
many ways. Hence, organizational identiﬁcation positively
inﬂuences employees’ perceptions and outcomes with
regard to their organization (Ashforth and Mael 1989;
Dukerich et al. 2002; Mael and Ashforth 1992; Stellmacher
et al. 2003; Van Dick and Wagner 2002; Van Knippenberg
and Van Schie 2000). It seems that this process functions as
a buffer for employees’ negative reactions to the abusive
behavior of their supervisor since employees with high
organizational identiﬁcation showed weaker negative
reactions than when organizational identiﬁcation was low.
This study contributed to research on organizational
identiﬁcation by conﬁrming that organizational identiﬁcation has an impact on employees not only in good times but
also in bad times (Ashforth and Mael 1989; Van Dick et al.
2006; Van Knippenberg et al. 2007). We showed that
subordinates’ high organizational identiﬁcation protects
them for speciﬁc negative consequences (i.e., lower perceived cohesion and higher gossip perceptions) of abusive
supervision. Hence, in the most enduring circumstances
(such as verbal abuse or intimidation), employees who
identiﬁed with a larger goal of the organization reacted in a
more positive way, i.e., they had a higher perceived
cohesion and they had a lower tendency gossip.
Future research on organizational identiﬁcation and
abusive supervision could look into the impact of work group
or departmental identiﬁcation on the negative effects of
abusive supervision. According to Van Knippenberg and
Van Schie (2000), departmental or work group identiﬁcation
is often stronger than organizational identiﬁcation. Moreover, work group or departmental identiﬁcation has a
stronger positive inﬂuence on attitudes and behaviors (e.g.,
job satisfaction, turnover intentions, job involvement, and
job motivation) than organizational identiﬁcation (Van
Knippenberg and Van Schie 2000). These authors draw their
statements from social identity theory and self-categorization theory (Tajfel 1978; Tajfel and Turner 1982; Turner
1985; Turner et al. 1987), which argues that a particular
social categorization (e.g., work group or department)
becomes more salient than other categorizations (e.g., the
larger organization) if that particular social categorization is
relatively accessible, shows a comparative ﬁt with oneself,
and positively distinguishes oneself from other categorizations. First of all, people interact on a daily basis with their
work groups and their department, which makes these subgroups highly accessible. Secondly, work groups and
departments generally consist of more similar people than
the larger organization (e.g., work group or department
members generally have the same educational background).
Finally, identifying with a smaller group (e.g., work group or
department) renders people more distinctiveness than identifying with larger groups (e.g., the organization as a whole).
Hence, it might well be that departmental identiﬁcation can
be an even stronger buffer for employees’ negative consequences of abusive supervision.
These ﬁndings also contributed to the present theoretic
research on abusive supervision. Existing research on abusive
supervision focused primarily on the negative consequences
these leaders induce for their employees. Our study
S. Decoster et al.
contributed to those few studies that investigated the boundary
conditions of employees’ reactions to abusive supervision
(Bamberger and Bacharach 2006; Harvey et al. 2007; Stouten
et al. 2005; Stouten and Tripp 2009; Tepper 2007). For
example, Tepper (2000) revealed that the impact of abusive
supervision on job satisfaction and depression was less profound when employees’ perceived job mobility was high.
Also, Harvey et al. (2007) showed that if employees report
high levels of ingratiation behavior and positive affect, abusive supervision is less strongly related to job tension, emotional exhaustion, and turnover intention. Similarly, the
relationship between abusive supervision and alcohol abuse
was less strong for employees who were high in conscientiousness and agreeableness (Bamberger and Bacharach
2006). Our study expands this line of work by focusing on an
institutional component, which is organizational identiﬁcation. This study showed that organizational identiﬁcation has
an inﬂuence on employees’ reactions to abusive supervisory
behavior. More speciﬁcally, we provided evidence that
employees who identify with their organization showed
weaker negative reactions to the abusive behavior of their
supervisors. Future leadership research could focus more on
disclosing different boundary conditions that determine
employees’ reactions to an abusive supervisor. Future
research should focus not only on the short-term but also on
the long-term effects of these boundary conditions. For
example, it might well be that employees with strong organizational identiﬁcation (or employees who are high in conscientiousness and agreeableness) respond more negatively
over time when the abusive behavior of the leaders remains.1
That is, followers with strong organizational identiﬁcation
might be more sensitive to the fact that no steps have been
taken to address the leader’s abuse.
Generally, employees consider supervisors who behave
disrespectful and abusive as a burden. However, employees
do not always react or speak up to their supervisor, even if
(s)he behaves abusively (Tepper 2007). Employees who
identify themselves with their organization, identify themselves with the organization’s goals, as being part of their
own self-image and therefore tend to show less negative
consequences when confronted with an abusive supervisor.
Indeed, organizational identiﬁcation seems to work as a
buffer on followers’ negative reactions to abusive supervision. However, newcomers in the organization might be
deterred by the presence of abusive supervisors because they
do not yet identify with the organization or their organizational identiﬁcation is just not strong enough to endure an
We would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.
Standing by Your Organization
abusive supervisor. In the course of time, this could result in
signiﬁcant costs for the employees and the organization,
given the signiﬁcance of abusive supervision on employees’
work experience. Therefore, organizations should try to
insure a sense of belongingness and provide a solid basis for
increasing employees’ organizational identity. Employees’
organizational identiﬁcation can be improved by, for
example, employing clear communication about the decisions and the procedures in the organization (Van Dick et al.
2006) or by applying identiﬁcation-enhancing interventions
(Van Knippenberg and Van Schie 2000).
On the other hand, this buffering effect of organizational
identiﬁcation may give abusive supervisors a free pass to
act in ways that are inappropriate since such leaders might
argue that followers’ reactions will be less severe. In such a
scenario, no efforts are being made toward the creation of a
non-abusive environment. Moreover, it might well be that,
despite employees’ strong organizational identiﬁcation,
abusive supervision still leads to negative consequences
(e.g., somatic health complaints, absenteeism, and turnover
intentions) for employees in the long run. Therefore,
organizations should try to prevent the emergence or the
existence of abusive supervision, for example, by fostering
a culture that is incompatible with abusive supervision, by
implementing 360-degree feedback programs, by implementing zero-tolerance policies, or by training employees
to respond in an appropriate way to abusive supervision
(Tepper 2007; Tepper et al. 2009).
Strengths and Limitations
This study was conducted by using a multi-source survey
where both employees’ responses and those of their supervisors were assessed. Such a multi-source design has been
argued to be able to reduce common-method bias (Podsakoff
et al. 2003). This signiﬁes that employees and supervisors are
less likely to bias the relationship between variables of
interest due to social desirability tendencies. However, this
research only partially assessed ratings from multiple sources. That is, supervisors rated employees’ tendency to gossip, but employees rated perceived cohesion. Hence, the
ﬁndings with regard to perceived cohesion may still have
been subject to common-method bias. Nevertheless, given
the consistency in results and as common-method bias has
been shown to decrease the sensitivity of tests of moderation
(Evans 1985), we are conﬁdent that common-method bias
might be of lesser concern.
A second limitation of our study concerns the low levels
of abusive supervision reported in our sample
(mean = 1.38). However, as stated by Harris et al. (2007),
this ﬁnding is in line with previous research revealing
levels of abusive supervision ranging from low, such as
1.26 (Tepper et al. 2004) and 1.38 (Tepper 2000), to high,
such as 2.06 (Tepper et al. 2006) and 2.70 (Biron 2010).
Moreover, as we were able to reveal a signiﬁcant interaction effect between abusive supervision and organizational
identiﬁcation for both perceived cohesion and tendency to
gossip, we feel conﬁdent that these low levels of abusive
supervision are of little concern for data analysis.
Finally, our design did not allow us to make causal
inferences because of the cross-sectional nature of the data.
It may well be that employees’ perceived cohesion and
tendencies to gossip set the stage for abusive supervision to
arise. However, prior longitudinal research showed that
abusive supervision is the antecedent of many negative
employee outcomes (Bamberger and Bacharach 2006;
Tepper 2000; Tepper et al. 2001). Hence, previous theorizing does support our ﬁndings which provide some conﬁdence in the hypothesized direction.
Recent leadership research focused on abusive supervision
and the negative consequences it has on employees’ attitudes
and behavior (Duffy et al. 2002; Mitchell and Ambrose 2007;
Tepper 2000, 2007; Zellars et al. 2002). This study adds to
this line of research by showing that employees do not necessarily react negatively toward an abusive leader. In fact,
our ﬁndings showed that organizational identiﬁcation functions as a protecting mechanism for the negative inﬂuence of
abusive supervision on employees’ perceived cohesion and
their tendency to gossip. In sum, this study illustrated that, in
the presence of an abusive supervisor, employees with high
organizational identiﬁcation showed weaker negative reactions than when organizational identiﬁcation was low.
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