Supervision incivility is defined as supervisor’s low intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the subordinate, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect [1
]. Examples of supervision incivility include the superior (leader) publicly criticizes, slanders, or satirizes the subordinate. There is compelling evidence that supervision incivility results in negative employee attitude, behavior, and psychological health [2
]. However, it is unclear whether these negative outcomes occur only at the dyadic level between the superior and the subordinate. Meanwhile, Anderson and Pearson [1
] pointed out that, in order to define the antecedents of workplace aggression, researchers should investigate the response to mistreatment as a related system of social interactions. In line with this view, our research incorporates supervision incivility as a link in a chain of aggressive workplace events to develop and test a trickle-down effect of supervision incivility.
The trickle-down effect is an interesting phenomenon in organizations that describes a transfer process of cognition, affection, or behavior from one party to another, such as from leaders to supervisors and then to employees, or from employees to customers [3
]. Previous research has studied a broad range of organizational topics with regard to the trickle-down effect, such as organizational justice [5
], perceived organizational support [6
], and psychological contract [7
]. Among all the studies on trickle-down effect, leadership research has received the most attention thus far in such aspects as ethical leadership [8
], transformational leadership [9
], empowering leadership [10
], authentic leadership [11
], and so on. Obviously, most of the research to date has focused on the trickle-down effect of positive leadership and their impact on organization performance. Fewer studies, however, have examined the trickle-down effect of “dark” leadership behavior [12
], such as abusive supervision - employees’ perceptions of the extent to which their supervisors engage in sustained hostile verbal and non-verbal behaviors, excluding physical contact [14
Another type of trickle-down effect of dark leadership is supervision incivility, which is lower in intensity than abusive supervision but involves rude or disrespectful behaviors by the supervisors with vague intention to harm their employees [1
]. Since workplace incivility is more pervasive than abusive behavior in high-context cultures such as China [15
], and previous research on the trickle-down effect of dark leadership focused on abusive supervision and collected data from low-context cultures such as the United States only [12
], we believe studying the trickle-down effect of supervision incivility in a high-context culture shall be able to complement the existing literature and empirical findings on dark leadership in the workplace.
To develop our trickle-down model of supervision incivility, we applied the social exchange theory [19
]. Social exchange theory posits that individual behavior obeys the rule of reciprocity, which will propel the recipient of the benefit to discharge the obligations by returning the favor, in the hope that continuing such a relationship will bring more valued benefits [20
]. For example, group leaders who receive fair treatment from their department leaders feel obligated to reciprocate the fair treatment by treating their own subordinates the same way [4
]. That is to say, there exists an “indirect exchange” between department leaders, group leaders, and employees. When group leaders experience negative behavior from their department leaders, the norm of reciprocity [21
] will lead to a “get even” mentality in the former, which manifests themselves in poor treatment of their subordinates in turn. In other words, a department leader’s uncivil behavior indirectly impacts employees who are two hierarchical levels below the department leader through its effect on their group leader’s uncivil behavior. Thus, we predict that department leaders’ uncivil behavior will be positively related to a group leader’s uncivil behavior, which in turn will be associated with employee attitudes, behaviors, and mental health, as links in a chain of aggressive workplace events.
As a matter of fact, one aspect of such mental health is the employees’ perceived psychological safety, which is defined as a shared belief among employees as to whether it is safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking in the workplace [22
]. Newman et al. [24
] further pointed out that psychological safety is likely more potent and meaningful at the group level. Therefore, to specify our exploration of the trickle-down effect of uncivil leadership behavior, we particularly examine whether the impact of department leader incivility on group psychological safety is mediated by group leader incivility.
Last but not least, previous research on abusive supervision has found that not all uncivil behaviors are equal—the subordinate’s perception and attribution of the superior uncivil behavior plays a critical role hereby. In particular, two distinctive types of motives are associated with supervisory abuse—performance promotion and injury initiation [13
]. On the one hand, if subordinates perceive their leader’s mistreatment of them as to enhance their performance, the impact of the incivility could be mitigated. On the other hand, if the subordinates believe their leader’s abusive behavior is more likely to harm them on purpose, they would feel harmed more by their leader’s incivility. Therefore, drawing on the attribution literature [25
], we examine the contingent effect of group leader attribution for performance promotion motive and injury initiation motive [13
] on the relationship between department leader incivility and group psychological safety.
In sum, our research tests a mediated-moderation model of supervision incivility and group psychological safety. It can make three unique contributions to the research literature. First, we augment the research on the negative impact of supervision incivility on group psychological safety. Second, we build a trickle-down effect model to unveil how supervision incivility flows top down and consequently undermines group psychological safety. Third, we expand the existing research thoughts on the trickle-down effect of dark leadership behavior by introducing the motive attribution variable as the boundary condition to further clarify its impact on group psychological safety [25
shows the descriptive statistics and correlations among all variables.
Following Zhou and Long’s [49
] suggestions, we first conducted a varimax rotation analysis of principal factors for all variables to examine the presence and magnitude of the common method variance, according to the number of factor precipitation or common factor interpretation. Five common factors (eigenvalue > 1) were extracted from the test results, and the first factor explained only 22.16% of the variance, that is, less than the recommended explanation criterion of 50%. Therefore, we reasonably concluded that the common method variance in the present research was not significant.
Before testing the hypotheses, we examined the distinctiveness of the research variables. We conducted confirmatory factor analyses (CFA) with maximum likelihood estimation in Mplus 7.4 [50
]. The CFA results in Table 2
demonstrate that our hypothesized five-factor model (i.e., department leader incivility, group leader incivility, group member psychological safety, attribution for performance-promotion motive, and attribution for injury-initiation motive) was a better fit to the data (x2
/df = 2.49 < 4, Root-Mean-Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) = 0.051 < 0.08, Incremental Fit Index (IFI) = 0.909 > 0.9, Tucker-Lewis Index (TLI) = 0.916 > 0.9, Comparative Fit Index (CFI) = 0.931 > 0.9) than these more parsimonious models: a four-factor model (M1) with attribution for performance-promotion motive and attribution for injury-initiation motive loaded on one factor (x2
/df = 3.92, RMSEA = 0.098, IFI = 0.761, TLI = 0.705, CFI = 0.827); a three-factor model (M2) with group leader incivility, attribution for performance-promotion motive and attribution for injury-initiation motive loaded on one factor (x2
/df = 4.64, RMSEA = 0.144, IFI = 0.710, TLI = 0.628, CFI = 0.705); a two-factor model (M3) with group member psychological safety, group leader incivility, attribution for performance-promotion motive and attribution for injury-initiation motive loaded on one factor (x2
/df = 4.98, RMSEA = 0.131, IFI = 0.593, TLI = 0.572, CFI = 0.591); and a one-factor model (M4) with all variables loaded on a single factor (x2
/df = 5.42, RMSEA = 0.180, IFI = 0.514, TLI= 0.416, CFI = 0.508).
We also generated the group leader incivility and group psychological safety measures by aggregating employee ratings to the group level so as to place all constructs in the model at the work group level of analysis. To justify the aggregation, we assessed the degree of group member consent in terms of group leader incivility and group psychological safety by calculating the rwg
]. The rwg
statistic is used to determine interrater agreement. The median rwg
statistic for group leader incivility was 0.76 and the median rwg
statistic for group psychological safety was 0.82. Despite considerable dissent on the adequate “cut-off” for rwg
], these values are all greater than the generally accepted level of 0.70.
In addition, we computed intra-class correlations (ICCs) to determine the reliability of group leader incivility and group psychological safety [53
]. We used ICC (1) to examine the degree of variability in responses at the individual level that is attributed to being part of the group. The ICC (1) was 0.34, F = 5.91, p
< 0.01 for group leader incivility and 0.32, F = 1.92, p
< 0.01 for group psychological safety. We used ICC (2) coefficient to examine the reliability of the group means. The ICC (2) was 0.72 for group leader incivility behavior and 0.71 for group psychological safety. These aggregation statistics provided strong support for combining the variables from the individual level to the workgroup level [53
Next, we used the hierarchical regression analysis method to test Hypothesis 1. As shown in Table 3
, we first entered the control variables (group size and organization type) into the regression model and then department leader incivility via stepwise. The results showed a significantly negative correlation between department leader incivility and group psychological safety (M2, β = −0.577, p
< 0.001). Thus, Hypothesis 1 is supported.
We tested Hypothesis 2 with Hayes’ PROCESS macro [40
], in which 10,000 bias-corrected bootstrapped samples are used. The indirect effect of department leader incivility on group psychological safety via group leader incivility is −0.131, with a 95% confidence interval (CI) [−0.241, −0.068], not including 0 (not shown in Table 3
). That is, the indirect effect is significant. Therefore, Hypothesis 2 is supported.
In order to test the moderating role of attribution motives, we first normalized the variable data and used the group-mean-centering technique when testing the interaction effect of department leader incivility and group leader attribution and then conducted regression analysis. As shown in Table 3
, department leader incivility had a significant positive correlation to group leader incivility (M3, β = 0.588, p
< 0.001), after entering the interaction term between department leader incivility and attribution for performance-promotion motive in Model 6, and the interaction coefficient is significant (β = 0.220, p
< 0.05), R2
= 0.39 (p
< 0.001). Meanwhile, after entering the interaction term between department leader incivility and attribution for injury-initiation motive in Model 7, the interaction coefficient is significant (β = −0.208, p
< 0.05), R2
= 0.351 (p
< 0.001). These results indicate that attribution for performance-promotion motive played a positive moderating role between department leader incivility and group leader incivility; moreover, attribution for injury-initiation motive played a negative moderating role between department leader incivility and group leader incivility. Therefore, both Hypothesis 3-1 and Hypothesis 3-2 receive support.
Finally, we tested Hypotheses 4-1 and 4-2 with Hayes’ PROCESS macro [40
]. The results showed that, when attribution for performance-promotion and injury-initiation motives are high, the indirect effect of the uncivil manager behavior on the group psychological safety through group leader incivility behavior is −0.272, CI [−0.107, −0.484] and −0.161, CI [−0.355, −0.048], respectively, not including 0; when attribution for performance-promotion and injury-initiation motives are low, the indirect effect of department leader incivility on group psychological safety through group leader incivility behavior is −0.147, CI [−0.042, −0.319] and −0.351, CI [−0.169, −0.624], respectively, not including 0. Together these results suggested that attribution for performance-promotion motive and injury-initiation motive moderate the indirect effect of department leader incivility behavior on group psychological safety through group leader incivility behavior. Nevertheless, according to Hayes [40
], if the indirect effects are both significant when the moderation variables are either high or low, the index of moderated-moderation criterion must be employed to determine whether the mediated-moderation effect is significant. In the present research, the index of attribution for performance-promotion motive is −0.062, CI (−0.007, −0.153), while the index of attribution for injury-initiation motive is 0.095, CI (0.229, 0.016), not including 0 for both. Thus, both Hypotheses 4-1 and 4-2 are supported.
and Figure 3
illustrate the moderating effect of group leader attribution motives (i.e., performance-promotion and injury-initiation motives) between department leader incivility and group leader incivility. Figure 2
and slope tests show that department leader incivility was more positively related to group leader incivility (β = 0.110, p
< 0.05) when group leaders’ attribution for performance promotion motive was high (3.64 + 0.59) than when it was low (β = 0.091, p
< 0.05)). Figure 3
and slope tests demonstrate that department leader incivility was less positively related to group leader incivility (β = 0.072, p
< 0.05) when group leader attribution for injury initiation motive was high (1.94 + 0.66) than when it was low (β = 0.089, p
We studied the trickle-down effect of supervision incivility in organizations, i.e., how department leader’s incivility affects group leader’s incivility and eventually group members’ psychological safety. Drawing on a sample of 346 employees and 78 group leaders in 78 work groups, we found that department leader incivility has a negative indirect effect on group member psychological safety through group leader incivility and that this trickle-down effect was moderated by group leader attributions. Specifically, group leader attribution of department leader’s incivility for performance promotion motive strengthened the positive influence of department leader incivility on group leader incivility, but group leader attribution of department leader’s incivility for injury initiation motive weakened such influence. These findings are in accord with Liu et al.’s [13
] research on the trickle-down effect of executives’ deviance behavior on supervisors’ abusive behavior and Mayer et al.’s [8
] study on how supervisors’ abusive behavior trickle down to affect subordinates’ interpersonal deviance in work groups. These findings have meaningful theoretical and managerial implications.
5.1. Theoretical Implications
Our findings contribute to the literature on leadership, psychological safety, and attribution in three primary ways. First and foremost, we explored and confirmed the antecedents of supervision incivility in organizations. Previous research on supervision incivility in the workplace has mostly focused on its consequences or dependent variables [2
] but more or less ignored its antecedents or independent variables, i.e., what could cause supervision incivility. Our research complemented this gap by revealing a trickle-down effect, i.e., the department leader incivility has a positive impact on group leader incivility. That is, the uncivil treatment received by the group leader from the department leader can be transferred to group members through “indirect exchange” according to social exchange theory [20
]. Therefore, studying the proliferation of supervision incivility from high-rank to low-rank managers expanded the scope of research area on supervision incivility.
Second, our research enhances the understanding of the role of dark leadership on employee psychological safety. Previous studies on leadership and group dynamics highlighted the impact of positive leadership behavior on group outcomes [54
] but paid less attention to the relationship between negative leadership behavior and group outcomes. Even less research has probed the impact of destructive leadership such as abusive supervision and workplace bullying on group outcomes [2
]. Consequently, the influence of negative leadership on such group outcomes as supervision incivility has generally been left unexplored [2
]. We addressed this research gap to provide empirical evidence about the detrimental effect of supervision incivility on subordinate psychological safety. Our research found that department leader incivility behavior has a negative impact on group psychological safety. Department leaders’ uncivil actions could bring in stressful climate in the workplace and eventually threaten group members’ psychological safety. This finding is consistent with other researchers’ results at the individual level [56
]. Our research also explores the antecedents of psychological safety. We discovered that department leader incivility and group incivility exerted unique, independent effects on psychological safety. This finding also supports social exchange theory and sheds light on the social exchange nature of workplace incivility [21
]. Specifically, if managers are engaged in negative behaviors towards their subordinates, the latter are very likely to respond with negative behaviors in return. Although the subordinates are unlikely to retaliate the leader back directly, they would most likely withdraw from the workplace due to their reduced psychological safety.
Finally, our research broadened the trickle-down model of leadership by unveiling the contingent roles of subordinate attributions in stimulating or preventing the spread of supervision incivility down the organization hierarchy. Researchers have generally looked at how leaders’ causal attributions for followers’ behaviors may impact leaders’ responses to followers [57
]. Supervisors respond differently to employee feedback-seeking behavior depending on whether they ascribe employee behavior to performance-enhancement motive or impression management motive [59
]. However, empirical research that examines followers’ attributions for leader behavior is still scarce [13
]. Answering to Liu et al.’s call [13
] about examining followers’ attribution for leader behavior, we showed that followers not only develop two causal motive attributions for leaders’ incivility, but also that such attributions significantly affect the cascading effect of supervision incivility. Thus, the results may generate crucial insights into the research on leadership process and consequences.
5.2. Practical Implications
Our research brings in significant implications to management practice as well. Curbing supervision incivility and minimizing its negative impact on group performance is a direct and effective way to create and maintain a positive and productive work climate for employees and managers to contribute to the success of their organization. Organizations should formulate, publicize, and periodically audit and restate their policies against supervision incivility, destructive leadership, and workplace bullying as part of their equal employment obligation. Organizations might also consider enhancing their managers’ awareness and immunity to supervision incivility through business ethics and regulation compliance training, management development (e.g., on emotional intelligence), individual coaching programs, and so on. Moreover, organizations can also institutionalize their anti-incivility policy through their management systems in terms of managerial selection and promotion, performance appraisal, and rewarding and compensation. On the other hand, as our findings show, supervision incivility from both department leader and group leader can undermine group members’ psychological safety, which is a prerequisite for high group performance and productivity. Organizations, particularly their human resource departments, should take good care of their employees’ psychological safety through such practices as emotional counseling, stress coping and resilience training, and other employee assistance programs. Establishing interactive communication channels between the management and employees such as employee engagement survey, employee opinion e-mailbox, online discussion forum, grievance hotline, or managerial open-door policy can help mitigate employees’ psychological safety as well.
5.3. Limitations and Directions for Future Research
As with any empirical study, our study has several limitations that point to avenues for future research. First, although we draw on social exchange theory [20
] to explain the trickle-down effect of supervision incivility, alternative theories may be considered to explain the phenomenon, such as social learning theory [12
] and affect-driven displaced aggression theory [60
]. Further research can deepen the research area by adopting a design that can further test the relative strengths of several alternative theories in explaining the trickle-down effect of supervision incivility.
Second, we did not empirically test the possible psychological mechanisms between supervision incivility and group member psychological safety, because our research focus on how the conditional, trickle-down effect of supervision incivility from department leader to group leader ultimately damage group member psychological safety. Future study may consider perceived organization support as the mediating process that links supervision incivility and group member psychological safety.
Third, given the focus of our research model on group leaders’ reactions to department leader incivility, we only investigated group leader attribution motives. However, Martinko, and Gradner [26
] argued that both leader and subordinate attributions for subordinate successes and failures might explain variance in leader and subordinate behaviors. Thus, future study may more comprehensively consider the impact of subordinate attribution motivation and leader attribution motivation.
Last but not least, we collected only cross-sectional data and ignored the time effect on variables. This restrained us from testing the dynamic impact of supervision incivility on group psychological safety, even though our findings suggested that supervisor incivility can be used as a negative predictor of group psychological safety. Future researchers can use a time-series design to collect horizontal and vertical data through empirical sampling or by employing a field test method.