ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (9): 1944-1954.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.01944

• Conceptual Framework • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Observer reactions to unethical pro-organizational behavior and their feedback effects

CHENG Ken1(), WANG Yifei2, LIN Yinghui3, WANG Jing1   

  1. 1School of Management, Zhejiang University of Technology, Hangzhou 310023, China
    2School of Economics and Management, Tongji University, Shanghai 200092, China
    3School of Management, Shanghai University, Shanghai 200444, China
  • Received:2021-12-14 Online:2022-09-15 Published:2022-07-21
  • Contact: CHENG Ken


In the recent decade, unethical pro-organizational behavior (UPB), defined as unethical behaviors conducted by employees to potentially benefit the organization, has become a hot topic in the organizational behavior research field. Since the concept of UPB was put forward, scholars have widely investigated the formation mechanisms of UPB. In comparison, the research on the effects of UPB is rather limited. Until now, little has been known about the social interaction mechanism of UPB that happens between coworkers and has UPB characteristics. Learning from and inspired by some views of correspondent inference theory and social cognitive theory, this study develops a social interaction model of UPB between coworkers. This theoretical model involves two roles, namely actors and observers, and consists of three correlated parts.

In the first part, based on the perspective of outcome expectation, we discuss the observers' psychological and behavioral reactions to UPB. Specifically, given that UPB can bring short-term benefits to the organization, we propose that observers will have positive expectations about the outcomes that UPB brings to the actors. Thus, the more UPB observers witness, the more positive outcomes observers will expect. Furthermore, we posit that observers' reactions to the positive outcome expectations will be contingent on the levels of observers' integrity. For observers high in integrity, positive outcome expectations may trigger moral anger, which in turn prompts observers to punish actors by undertaking workplace negative gossip. In contrast, observers low in integrity may be motivated by the positive outcome expectations, thereby engaging in moral disengagement and then conducting UPB.

In the second part, based on the perspective of motive attribution, we explore the observers' psychological and behavioral reactions to UPB. Specifically, given the analysis of the outcomes of UPB in the first part, we contend that when observing UPB, observers will attribute self-interested and pro-organizational motives to the UPB actors. The attributed self-interested motives may result in moral anger and subsequently encourage observers to engage in workplace negative gossip, while the attributed pro-organizational motives may attenuate the relationship between the attributed self-interested motives and moral anger. We further argue that the aforementioned relationships will vary across individuals. For observers high in integrity, the attributed self-interested motives may exert stronger impacts on moral anger, while the moderating effect of the attributed pro-organizational motives may become weaker.

In the third part, based on the perspective of intent inference, we analyze the actors' behavior changes in accordance with observers' feedback. Specifically, if actors find that many observers also conduct UPB, they will form a perception that UPB is accepted by the working unit and then maintain or increase the levels of UPB. In contrast, when actors hear negative gossips from the observers, they will interpret the gossips as a kind of warning and thus reduce UPB subsequently. Moreover, considering that Chinese people value the maintenance of interpersonal harmony, we deem that workplace negative gossip may likely prompt actors to shift their behaviors from UPB to organizational citizenship behavior directed at observers to improve the interpersonal relations.

In conclusion, the present study not only narrows the extant research gap of the impacts of UPB to some extent, but also deepens the understanding of the social interaction mechanism of UPB. Meanwhile, our model offers practical implications for managers to control the contagion of UPB in organizations. Finally, we put forward some future research directions of this theoretical model in terms of observers' moral judgment to UPB, cognitive appraisals related to the unethical attribute of UPB, and the internal mechanisms of behavior changes of UPB actors.

Key words: unethical pro-organizational behavior, observer reaction, social interaction

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