How Aversive Leadership Impacts Employee Proactivity and Moral Disengagement

How Aversive Leadership Impacts Employee Proactivity and Moral Disengagement

Aversive leadership

Understanding the relationship between aversive leadership and its outcomes is crucial for organisations aiming to foster a positive work environment and promote employee well-being and productivity.  Research looking at the relationships between aversive leadership, moral disengagement, and proactive personality traits.

In organisations leaders tend to establish behavioural standards by modelling behaviour and enforcing them through work policies.

Negative behaviours

Leaders that use negative behaviours like bullying, however, are also modelling behaviour and making it more acceptable. Leaders who engage in aversive forms of leadership, such as antisocial behaviour, abuse, threats, psychological intimidation and humiliation, usually to exercise control over people, tend to have a negative effective both on employees and on their organisation as a whole.

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Abusive leader behaviour

Abusive leader behaviour supports the perception that unethical actions are acceptable in the organisation, especially when someone in a position of power is consistently modelling them. When employees experience these negative behaviours they tend to:

  • Lose personal resources, such as a positive work attitude and healthy mental state
  • Experience increased stress levels
  • Reduce their work performance
  • Have reduced access to career advancement opportunities
  • Lose trust in their supervisors

These all reduce productivity and organisational performance suffers.

Abusive leader behaviour

Lack of ethical behaviour from leaders

A lack of ethical behaviour from leaders also tends to increase employee moral disengagement. This means that employees feel that ethical standards do not apply to them and they are free to “do as they please”, which reduces feelings of guilt and remorse. If the work environment stays toxic long enough, social contagion is likely to occur, with this negative mindset becoming part of the culture throughout the entire organisation, increasing the likelihood of unethical work practices becoming standardised.

“If the work environment stays toxic long enough, social contagion is likely to occur”

There is a question about whether aversive leadership styles and a contagion of reduced ethics impacts everyone the same. For example do employees with personal resources, such as a proactive personality, fare better in such conditions than others?

People with higher levels of proactive personality

People with higher levels of proactive personality tend to:

  • Have generally higher levels of engagement in a range of things
  • Have higher levels of work performance, which are connected to greater satisfaction with their professional and personal life
  • Positively influence workplace environments, as they have higher levels of self-efficacy and ability to meet performance goals
  • Accept change and create more resources
  • Be more innovative with higher levels of internal motivation
  • Be more adaptable
proactive personality

Previous Research

Previous research looking at the relationships between aversive leadership, moral disengagement, and proactive personality traits has found that:

  • Proactive personality traits empower and encourage employees, who tend to take on additional responsibilities, due in part to higher levels of self-efficacy.
  • There is a positive association between employee performance and proactive personality traits.
  • Aversive leaders tend to psychologically attack others and can have a tendency to humiliate people, which also causes higher levels of stress.
  • Moral disengagement increases the tendency of individuals to remain inactive and become passive bystanders when someone else is being bullied or abused.

A new study

A new study by researchers from the National University of Modern Languages in Pakistan has looked at the impact of aversive leadership on employee moral disengagement and the potential moderating effects of proactive personality traits.


The study found that:

  1. Aversive leadership increases moral disengagement amongst employees.
  2. Employees with a proactive personality are still negatively impacted by aversive leadership.
  3. Proactive personality traits does not ‘inoculate’ people against the harmful effects of aversive leadership and still causes moral disengagement, even with highly proactive individuals.

Primary reference

Kayani, M. B., Ali, M., & Idrees, S. (2022). Impact of aversive leadership on followers’ moral disengagement. Journal of Public Value and Administrative Insight5(1), 128-140.

Is Laissez-faire leadership really the leadership style to avoid?


Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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