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June 24, 2016       

How Moral Identity Influences Witnesses' Reactions to Abusive Supervisors
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Have you ever been the victim of an abusive supervisor and wondered why no one intervened on your behalf? Researcher Marie Mitchell and colleagues (2015) examined the conditions under which those who witness abuse by a supervisor are likely to respond and how they might respond.

In general, they found that peoples' reactions to witnessing abuse by a supervisor is influenced by how much they view the co-worker as deserving of the supervisor's treatment and the witness's personal moral identity. A strong personal moral identity was defined by believing that certain personal characteristics such as caring, kindness, and friendliness were important to them.

When the co-worker was seen as deserving of the supervisor's treatment the witnesses were more likely to feel contented or satisfied and to respond by excluding the co-worker. Such exclusion could include behaviors such as ignoring the co-worker or not including the co-worker in discussions or activities.

Keep in mind that the determination of whether someone was deserving of the treatment was not objective and was based upon personal beliefs which can be influenced by their own feelings towards the person or their own need for self-protection. For instance, if they view the other person as inferior in some way they can believe they are less likely to be treated similarly.

On the other hand, if the co-worker was seen as undeserving, the witnesses reported feeling angry and were more likely to act on that anger. However, the specific actions they took were based upon their moral identity. Those with a strong moral identity were more likely to take constructive action to help and support the co-worker. Those with a weaker moral identity were more likely to direct their anger towards the supervisor through rudeness, gossip, or more direct aggression.

Obviously, there may be other factors that can influence peoples' reactions to witnessing such abuse such as fear of retribution if they become involved. However, this research shows the importance of developing a strong moral identity because it increases the likelihood of positive intervention. Although such an identity cannot be forced upon someone, it can be encouraged by teaching people more empathetic attitudes and behaviors.

Mitchell, M.S., Vogel, R.M. and Folger, R. (2015). Third Parties’ Reactions to the Abusive Supervision of Coworkers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 1040–1055. DOI: 10.1037/apl0000002

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