Witnessing wrongdoing: The effects of observer power on incivility intervention in the workplace

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Hershcovis, M. Sandy
Neville, Lukas
Reich, Tara
Christie, Amy
Cortina, Lilia
Shan, J. Valerie
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Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Research often paints a dark portrait of power. Previous work underscores the links between power and self-interested, antisocial behavior. In this paper, we identify a potential bright side to power—namely, that the powerful are more likely to intervene when they witness workplace incivility. In experimental (Studies 1 and 3) and field (Study 2) settings, we find evidence suggesting that power can shape how, why, and when the powerful respond to observed incivility against others. We begin by drawing on research linking power and action orientation. In Study 1, we demonstrate that the powerful respond with agency to witnessed incivility. They are more likely to directly confront perpetrators, and less likely to avoid the perpetrator and offer social support to targets. We explain the motivation that leads the powerful to act by integrating theory on responsibility construals of power and hierarchy maintenance. Study 2 shows that felt responsibility mediates the effect of power on increased confrontation and decreased avoidance. Study 3 demonstrates that incivility leads the powerful to perceive a status challenge, which then triggers feelings of responsibility. In Studies 2 and 3, we also reveal an interesting nuance to the effect of power on supporting the target. While the powerful support targets less as a direct effect, we reveal countervailing indirect effects: To the extent that incivility is seen as a status challenge and triggers felt responsibility, power indirectly increases support toward the target. Together, these results enrich the literature on third-party intervention and incivility, showing how power may free bystanders to intervene in response to observed incivility.
Organizational behaviour, Power, Workplace incivility, Incivility
Hershcovis, J.S., Neville, L., Reich, T., Christie, A., Cortina, L. & Shan, J.V. (2017). Witnessing wrongdoing: The effects of observer power on incivility intervention in the workplace. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 142, pp. 45-57