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Journal of Occupational Health Psychology

2006, Vol. 11, No. 2, 145156

Copyright 2006 by the American Psychological Association


1076-8998/06/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1076-8998.11.2.145

The Social StressorsCounterproductive Work Behaviors Link: Are


Conflicts With Supervisors and Coworkers the Same?
Valentina Bruk-Lee and Paul E. Spector
University of South Florida
The differential impact of conflict with supervisors and coworkers on the target of counterproductive work behaviors (CWB) was investigated using multiple data sources. The mediating role
of negative emotions was also tested using an emotion-centered model of CWB. Data were
obtained from 133 dyads (incumbents plus a coworker) of full-time working participants representing a variety of occupations at the University of South Florida. Participants in the incumbent
role were asked to complete a questionnaire measuring demographics, conflict, negative emotions, and CWB. The coworker was asked to respond to a shorter questionnaire measuring conflict
and CWB regarding the incumbents job. Evidence for a differential relationship between conflict
sources and the target of CWB was found. The emotion-centered model of voluntary work
behavior received partial support.
Keywords: social stressor, counterproductive behaviors, conflict, occupational stress

Research in occupational stress has burgeoned in


recent years because of a growing awareness of the
need to improve the quality of work life and well
being of employees. The most commonly studied
stressors have been workload and role stressors, such
as role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload.
However, researchers have begun to acknowledge the
importance of stressors resulting from the social
work environment, namely interpersonal conflict
(Keenan & Newton, 1985). Further, strains that have
received considerable attention in occupational stress
research include job dissatisfaction, anxiety/tension,
and withdrawal. Yet, because of the need for a better
understanding of the stress and job performance relationship (Jex, 1998), behavioral strains that affect
performance have also received greater attention,
such as counterproductive work behaviors (CWB).
The purpose of this research was to study the
relationship between social stressors and counterproductive work behaviors, which are behaviors aimed
at hurting the organization or the individuals in it, in
greater detail. Specifically, the literature in this area
has not sufficiently addressed whether the source of
the social stressor, assessed by a measure of interpersonal conflict, has a differential impact on employees behavioral responses. Further, although limited

support exists for an emotion-centered model which


may guide us in understanding the conflict-CWB
relationship, more evidence is warranted.

Social Stressors: Interpersonal Conflict


at Work

Valentina Bruk-Lee, and Paul Spector, Department of


Psychology University of South Florida.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Valentina Bruk-Lee, University of South Florida,
Department of Psychology, PCD 4118 G, Tampa, FL
33620. E-mail: bruk@mail.usf.edu

The social environment is a fundamental element


in the well being of employees. Keenan and Newton
(1985) used the Stress Incident Report (SIR), an
open-ended method, to collect stressful incidents that
occurred at work in the prior month with a sample of
young engineers. Seventy-four percent of the incidents reported were social in nature, such that they
were caused by social interactions with superiors,
subordinates, or colleagues. Not surprisingly, one of
the most cited sources of stress was interpersonal
conflict at work. The SIR was also used in a study by
Narayanan, Menon, and Spector (1999b). Interpersonal conflict was the most reported source of stress
for both college professors and sales clerks. University clerical support employees reported conflict to be
the 3rd major source of stress among a total of 9
potential sources.
Bolger, DeLongis, Kessler, and Schilling (1989)
presented further evidence of the importance of interpersonal relationships at work. The researchers
found that interpersonal conflicts were considered the
most upsetting stressor by a sample of married couples that were asked to report both work and nonwork
sources of stress. In addition, one fourth of respondents in a sample of employees from various occupations reported interpersonal issues were the most

145

146

BRUK-LEE AND SPECTOR

troublesome stressors at work (Smith & Sulsky,


1995). A diary study by Hahn (2000) asked participants, who were representative of a full-time working
sample in a wide range occupations, to record the
number of conflicts at work and to describe the
occurrence. Content analysis of the data showed that
respondents recorded interpersonal stressors on half
of their workdays.
There exists some cross-cultural evidence for the
prevalence of interpersonal conflict at work as a
source of significant stress. Narayanan, Menon, and
Spector (1999a) reported that interpersonal conflict
was the 3rd most cited source of stress in a U.S.
sample and the 4th most cited source of stress in an
Indian sample. Respondents in both samples consisted of clerical workers and 11 possible stressor
categories were considered. In this study, role stressors traditionally studied in occupational stress were
the least reported sources of stress. Liu (2002) also
found that Chinese and American faculty, as well as
university support staff, reported interpersonal conflict to be a main source of stress.
Although conflict is clearly a leading stressor, occupational stress researchers have often failed to differentiate between potential sources of conflict. In
other words, interpersonal conflict at work has been
largely measured without distinguishing between supervisor and coworker conflict. Considering that supervisor support has been found to be a significant
moderator of the relationship between social stressors
and symptoms of depression (Dormann & Zapf,
1999), it is expected that conflict with supervisors
may result in different outcomes than when conflict
involves coworkers. Frone (2000) is one of the few
researchers to distinguish between sources of conflict
in his study of young workers. He proposed that a
supervisor represents an organization and, thus, feelings toward the organization are likely to be affected
when conflict involves a supervisor. Consequently,
Frone (2000) hypothesized that conflict with coworkers would lead to personal outcomes, such as depression and reduced self-esteem, while conflict with
supervisors would result in organizational outcomes,
such as job dissatisfaction and turnover. The findings
supported the proposed model, thus, providing insight into the fundamental role that conflict source
plays on employee behavior.
Stress researchers have found that conflict, as a
social stressor, is associated with behavioral strains.
For example, Chen and Spector (1992) reported a
number of behavioral and intentional reactions to
interpersonal conflict at work. The findings showed
that conflict had a significant positive correlation

with sabotage, interpersonal aggression, hostility and


complaints, and intention to quit. Furthermore, Fox,
Spector and Miles (2001) used a behavioral checklist
to assess CWB and their relationship with interpersonal conflict. It was found that conflict was positively and significantly related to both organizational
and interpersonal types of CWB. Spector, Fox, Goh,
and Bruursema (2003) supported these findings using
incumbent and peer data.
Although a relationship between conflict and CWB
has been supported, researchers have not previously
addressed the differential impact conflict sources
may have in predicting organizational and interpersonal CWB. Qualitative data from focus groups conducted with a working sample supported the notion
that employees fear the consequences of getting back
at their supervisors when they are the source of the
conflict. Participants attributed this to the power that
a supervisor has over his or her employment. However, conflict with coworkers was seen as less threatening because of the fact that coworkers have the
same organizational authority as they do (Bruk-Lee,
2004). Hence, it is likely that negative behavioral
reactions to conflict with supervisors be directed at
the organization. On the other hand, employees may
be less inhibited to react to conflict with coworkers
by engaging in damaging behaviors toward them.
Consistent with Frones (2000) findings, this would
suggest that conflict with supervisors affects outcomes of organizational relevance while conflict with
coworkers impact those of personal relevance. Research by Zellars, Tepper, and Duffy (2002) concluded that victims of abusive supervision restore
their sense of control by withholding voluntary behaviors that would otherwise benefit the organization, namely organizational citizenship behaviors.
According to Tepper (2000), victims of abusive supervisors view the organization as partly to blame,
which helps to explain why they would target their
behaviors at the organization. The same reasoning
may apply to interpersonal conflict with supervisors.
Additional research by Duffy, Ganster, and Pagon
(2002) looked at the effects of social undermining by
supervisors and coworkers on counterproductive behaviors. The researchers reported that social undermining by supervisors, but not by coworkers, was
predictive of passive counterproductive behaviors. In
their study, passive CWB included behaviors similar
to those of organizational CWB such as taking longer
breaks and being lazy on the job (Duffy et al., 2002).
The results lent further support to a differential effect
of negative social relationships on work outcomes.
However, it is important to note that both abusive

SOCIAL STRESSORS AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIORS

supervision and social undermining are theoretically


distinct from interpersonal conflict in that the latter
does not necessarily require the victimization of a
target, thus each construct warrants individual attention. Based on these findings, the following hypotheses are proposed:
Hypothesis 1: Organizational CWB will be predicted by conflict with supervisors and not by
conflict with coworkers.
Hypothesis 2: Interpersonal CWB will be predicted by conflict with coworkers and not by
conflict with supervisors.
Affective reactions to conflict at work have been
reported by a number of studies. Keenan and Newton (1985) reported that the most frequently cited
emotional reactions by their sample were anger,
annoyance, and frustration. Similarly, Narayanan
et al., (1999b) found that feelings of anger, annoyance, and frustration were the most cited affective
strains reported across three occupations that rated
interpersonal conflict as a major source of stress.
Frustration and anxiety were also positive correlates of conflict in a longitudinal study by Spector
and OConnell (1994). A meta-analysis by Spector
and Jex (1998) reported mean correlations between
conflict and a number of negative emotional states,
such as anxiety, depression, and frustration that
ranged in the mid .30s.
Clearly, interpersonal conflict at work is a social
stressor that seems to elicit a variety of negative
affective outcomes, including feelings of frustration,
anger, annoyance, and anxiety. It seems logical,
therefore, that it is not the specific emotional reaction
that is experienced as a result of conflict that matters.
Rather, it is the experience of negative affect that has
been found across the previously reviewed studies
that may require closer attention. Fox et al. (2001)
used the Job-Related Affective Well-Being Scale to
obtain a negative emotion score derived from the
responses to 15 items measuring negative emotional
states. The results indicated a significant positive
correlation between conflict and negative emotions,
thus, indicating that the variety of negative affective
states resulting from conflict at work can be studied
by using a measure of overall negative emotions.
Consequently, the following hypothesis is proposed:
Hypothesis 3: Conflict with supervisors and coworkers will be positively correlated with a
measure of overall negative emotions.

147

Counterproductive Work Behaviors


CWB researchers have referred to these acts using
numerous terms, including deviance (Hollinger,
1986; Robinson & Bennett, 1995), organizational
retaliatory behavior (Skarlicki & Folger, 1997), and
antisocial behaviors (Giacalone & Greenberg, 1997).
Regardless of the term used for describing these
behaviors, it can be said that each refers to detrimental behaviors that affect an organizations productivity and coworkers performance.
Despite the various terms that exist in the literature
to refer to CWB, the research has commonly divided
these behaviors into two types: organizational and
interpersonal. Bennett and Robinson (2000) suggested that the target of CWB is important because it
may be that employees engaging in one type of
behavior are different from those engaging in another
type. They used a multidimensional scaling technique to develop a typology of what they refer to as
deviant behaviors and are labeled CWB in this paper
(Robinson & Bennett, 1995). The results indicated
that these behaviors varied across two dimensions,
were divided into four quadrants, and ranged from
minor to serious. Specifically, organizational CWB
includes production deviance and property deviance.
The 1st group is composed of minor behaviors that
refer to ways in which employees may withdraw
efforts and, consequently, affect productivity (i.e.,
leaving early and without permission). The 2nd
group includes behaviors aimed at damaging organizational property (i.e., sabotaging equipment). Interpersonal CWB is divided into political deviance and
personal aggression. Political deviance includes behaviors that are considered to be minor, such as
spreading rumors. However, personal aggression refers to verbal abuse and other forms of harassment
(Robinson & Bennett, 1995).
An emotion-centered model of voluntary behaviors at work was developed to explain the connection
between stressors, emotions, and CWB (Spector &
Fox, 2002). The model describes a process whereby
environmental characteristics are perceived and appraised by employees, which may, in turn, elicit
negative emotions. These negative emotions are not
target specific, but augment the possibility that employees will engage in behaviors that are counterproductive. Spector and Fox (2002) suggested that A
situation that induces a negative emotion will increase the likelihood that CWB will occur, either to
actively and directly attack the agent of the situation
or to passively and indirectly cope with the emotion
(p.273). In fact, a measure of overall negative emotion was found to correlate significantly with organi-

148

BRUK-LEE AND SPECTOR

zational and interpersonal CWB, such that negative


emotions were associated with higher levels of CWB
(Fox et al., 2001). Considering that conflict is a
stressor associated with negative emotional states and
that these states are, in turn, associated with CWB, it
can be expected that conflict at work will be related
to CWB. Fox et al. (2001) found some support for
this claim. In particular, an emotion-centered model
of CWB was partially supported in that a pattern of
mediation was established for overall negative emotions in the conflict-CWB relationship. The following
hypotheses will, thus, be tested:
Hypothesis 4: Overall negative emotions will be
positively correlated with interpersonal and organizational CWB.
Hypothesis 5: Overall negative emotions will
mediate the relationship between conflict with
supervisors and organizational CWB.
Hypothesis 6: Overall negative emotions will
mediate the relationship between conflict with
coworkers and interpersonal CWB.

The Current Study


Interpersonal conflict at work has received growing attention among researchers in occupational
stress. Conflict is a predominant source of social
stress in the workplace across occupations. Nevertheless, researchers have ignored the source of the conflict, such that conflicts with supervisors and with
coworkers have been mostly examined without distinguishing between the two. However, evidence supports differential personal and organizational outcomes depending on the source of the conflict (Frone,
2000). It is also evident from the review that this
social stressor is associated with a number of emotional reactions, including anger, frustration, and
annoyance.
The emotion-centered model described above suggests that the target of the counterproductive behavior will depend on the perceived agent of the situation that induced the emotion (Spector & Fox,
2002, p. 275). Greenberg and Barling (1999), who
explained that employees would choose to aggress
against the source of their dissatisfaction, also suggested the target specificity of CWB. Likewise, Bennett and Robinson (2000) suggested that the target of
CWB is important because it may be that employees
engaging in one type of behavior are different from
those engaging in another type.
Researchers have proposed that future studies ex-

amine the antecedents of the different types of CWB


in greater detail (Fox et al., 2001). In response to the
need for further development of the interpersonal
conflict-CWB relationship, the goals of this study
were twofold. First, it was to determine if conflicts
with coworkers and supervisors resulted in differential behavioral responses. Second, it was to gather
further support for an emotion-centered model of
voluntary behaviors while elucidating the conflictCWB relationship.
Given the sensitive nature and consequences that
may be associated with CWB if employees are identified, researchers have often relied on the use of
single-source self-reports. This methodology was
recommended to be a practical way to assess the
occurrence of CWB as long as participants are guaranteed anonymity (Bennett & Robinson, 2000). Further, Ones, Viswesvaran, and Schmidt (1993) suggested that actual behaviors and admissions of such
behaviors are correlated significantly, thus providing
more support for the use of self-report measures in
the study of counterproductive behaviors. Nevertheless, reliance on self-report measures has attracted
several criticisms, including the possibility that relationships among variables are inflated because of
common biases such as social desirability (Lee,
1993). To address the methodological issues associated with only using self-reports, researchers have
called for the inclusion of measures in addition to the
traditional incumbent report (Spector, 1992). In response, Spector et al. (2003) collected both self and
coworker reports of stressors and strains and found
good convergence between the two data sources. The
current study will use a similar method to collect data
from participants and their coworkers. As a result, we
propose the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 7: Self-report findings will be replicated using coworker reports of conflict and
CWB.

Methods
Participants
Participants in this study consisted of 133 dyads (employee-coworker pairs) that were full-time University Support Personnel Systems (USPS) employees at the University
of South Florida. A total of 858 questionnaire packets were
mailed to employees, containing 1 employee and 1 coworker questionnaire. Of these, 157 employees and 142
coworkers mailed back questionnaires; however, 33 questionnaires were not included in the analyses because they
were missing a matching coworker or employee questionnaire. The response rate for employees (N 157) was
18.3%, and of these 84.7% (N 133) had a matching

SOCIAL STRESSORS AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIORS


coworker questionnaire. The final sample represented a
variety of occupations, including professional, administrative, clerical, secretarial, technical, service, and maintenance duties. Of the 133 participants who completed the
employee questionnaires that were used 29 (21.97%) were
male, 103 (78.03%) were female, and one did not identify
his or her gender. On average, they were 43.9 years old and
worked in their current jobs for 8.7 years. Managerial positions were held by 36 (28.35%) of these respondents. Of
the 133 participants who completed the coworker questionnaires that were used 31 were male (24.6%), 95 were female
(75.4%), and 7 did not report their gender.

Procedure
The most recent list of all main campus USPS employees
was obtained from the University of South Floridas human
resources department at the time of data collection. A random sample of employees was sent a survey packet including an informational letter describing the purpose of the
study and 2 questionnaires by interoffice mail. Employees
were instructed to create a secret password consisting of at
least 5 digits, letters, or a combination of both. They placed
their secret password on their questionnaire and the coworkers questionnaire for matching. The employee completed
his or her questionnaire and gave a coworker his or her
corresponding shortened questionnaire (with the identification code on top). The coworker was instructed to complete
the questionnaire with regards to the incumbent. Completed
employee and coworker questionnaires were mailed to the
researcher through campus mail.

Measures
Demographics. Information regarding the employees
age, gender (1 male, 2 female), tenure, and type of job
(1 managerial, 2 nonmanagerial) was collected. Coworkers were asked to report only their gender.
Stressor. Conflict at work was measured using Frones
(2000) modified version of the Interpersonal Conflict at
Work Scale (ICAWS; Spector & Jex, 1998). Each set of
questions measured the extent to which the employee experienced arguments, yelling, and rudeness when interacting with the supervisor or with coworkers, respectively
(e.g., How often do you get into arguments with your
supervisor?). The scale consisted of 4 items rated on a
5-point scale ranging from 1 Never to 5 Every day.
High scores represent high levels of conflict where total
scores ranged between 4 and 20. Frone (2000) reported a
Cronbachs alpha of .86 for conflict with supervisor and .85
for conflict with coworkers.
Affect. The Job-Related Affective Well-Being Scale
was used to measure emotional reactions to job conditions
(JAWS; Van Katwyk, Fox, Spector, & Kelloway, 2000).
Respondents rated how their jobs made them feel each of 15
negative emotions in the past 30 days (e.g., My job made
me feel angry). Each item was rated on a 5-point scale
ranging from 1 Never to 5 Every day. A total negative
emotion score was calculated by summing the scores on all
15 negative emotion items resulting in a total score range of
1575. The negative emotion subscale of the JAWS was
reported to have a Cronbachs alpha of .80 (Van Katwyk et
al., 2000).

149

CWB. Counterproductive work behaviors were measured using a modified version of the behavioral checklist
created by Fox et al. (2001). Three graduate students categorized 45 of the items using Robinson and Bennetts
(1995) typology of organizational and interpersonal CWB.
Only items in which all 3 raters agreed on their categorization and which were reported as having been done by at
least 10% of people in a study by Fox et al. (2001) were kept
in the final checklist. This resulted in 25 items from which
11 were targeted at the organization (e.g., Took supplies or
tools home without permission), and 14 were interpersonal
in nature (e.g., Insulted or made fun of someone at work).
Respondents indicated how often they or their coworker
performed each of the behaviors in their current job on a
scale from 1 Never to 5 Every day. Total scores for
interpersonal CWB ranged between 14 and 60 and between
11 and 55 for organizational CWB.

Results
Means, standard deviations, Cronbachs alphas,
and zero-order correlations for all of the study variables are shown in Table 1. Coworker data are presented only for conflict with supervisor, conflict with
coworkers, interpersonal CWB, and organizational
CWB. All other data are self-reported demographics,
supervisor and coworker conflict, emotion, and
CWB. Although age showed significant correlations
with several key study variables, its inclusion in the
regressions did not change the results. Consequently,
it was removed as a control variable from further
analyses.
Regression analyses were performed to test
whether conflict sources differentially predicted
CWB targets. As seen in Table 2, conflict with coworkers was the only significant predictor of interpersonal CWB, which lends support to hypothesis 2.
This was true for same source and cross-source data,
thus also providing support for hypothesis 7. It is
worth noting that coworker reported conflict with
supervisor seems to be acting as a suppressor variable
in the case of self-reported interpersonal CWB by
increasing the predictive power of coworker reported
conflict with coworkers.
The results for organizational CWB to test hypothesis 1 are more complex. In the case of same source
data, the results indicate that both predictors have
significant beta weights. However, the same is not
true for cross-source data. Table 2 shows that selfreported conflict with coworkers is the only significant predictor of coworker-reported organizational
CWB at Step 2. Further, neither coworker-reported
conflict was predictive of self-reported organizational
CWB.
Hypothesis 3 proposed that conflict with supervisors and coworkers would be positively related to
self-reported negative emotions. The data indicated

BRUK-LEE AND SPECTOR

.86***
.12
.21*
.45***
.37***
.30***
(.85)
.21*
.23**
.49***
.47***
(.79)
.58***
.17
.04
.41***
.28**
(.91)
.30***
.23**
.41**
.21*
.24**
.25**
(.83)
.23*
.08
.37***
.23*
.45***
.35***
.40***
(.68)
.11
.24**
.42***
.04
.21*
.14
.19*
.07
.11
.14
.02
.04
.05
.10
.06
.03
.03
.04
.06
.12
.17
.16
.01
.25**
.10
.17
.14
Note. N 121133; Coefficient alphas are shown on the diagonal.
* p .05. ** p .01. *** p .001.

.11
.00
.02
.07
.02
.12
.04
.02
.10
.20*
.14
.03
.01
.46***
.22*
.21*
.07
.07
.10
.27**
.22*
.15
.20*

11
10
9
8
7
6
5
4
3
2
1
SD

11.62
.42
.45
8.88
1.55
2.23
9.47
2.42
2.76
4.88
2.88
8.49
7.17
43.89
1.78
1.72
8.69
4.93
5.56
29.04
5.26
5.55
17.10
16.10
17.63
17.91

M
Variable

Age
Gender
Job Type
Tenure
Supervisor conflict
Coworker conflict
Negative emotion
Supervisor conflict (coworker report)
Coworker conflict (coworker report)
CWB organization
CWB personal
CWB organization (coworker report)
CWB personal (coworker report)

Table 1
Means, Standard Deviations, Intercorrelations, and Coefficient Alpha Reliability Estimates

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.

12

13

150

positive significant relationships between the negative emotions measure and self-reported conflict with
supervisors (r .24), self-reported conflict with coworkers (r .23), coworker reports of conflict with
supervisors (r .30), and coworker reports of conflict with coworkers (r .23), thus providing support
for this hypothesis and hypothesis 7.
To test hypothesis 4, the relationship between negative emotions and CWB was calculated. The results
showed that both organizational (r .41) and interpersonal (r .21) self-reported CWB were significantly related to negative emotions. Significant findings were replicated using coworker reports of
organizational (r .24) and interpersonal (r .25)
CWB.
The four multiple regression analyses used to test
hypotheses 5 and 6 reported mixed results for the
mediating role of negative emotions in the specified
predictor-criterion relationships using self and coworkers reports of CWB. Baron and Kennys (1986)
procedure for testing mediation, which tests three
regression models, was used. First, CWB was regressed on conflict. Second, negative emotion was
regressed on conflict. Last, CWB was regressed on
both conflict and negative emotion.
It was expected that conflict would become nonsignificant or substantially reduced when the mediator was entered into the equation. Results of these
analyses are presented in Table 3. Evidence for the
mediation of negative emotion in the relationships
between self and coworker reports of organizational
CWB and self-reports of supervisor conflict was
found. In these two instances, the beta of the stressor
became nonsignificant when emotion was added to
the regression model. Although shown in Table 3, a
test of mediation was not necessary for the relationship between self-reports of organizational CWB and
coworker reports of conflict with supervisor because
the variables did not meet the first criterion defined
by Baron and Kenny (1986). A pattern of mediation,
as indicated by reduced but still significant stressor
betas, was also found for the relationships between
coworker reports of interpersonal CWB and selfreports of coworker conflict, as well as, between
self-reports of interpersonal CWB and coworker reports of conflict with coworkers. Support for mediation was not found for the relationships between
self-reports of both interpersonal CWB and conflict
with coworkers, coworker reports of both organizational CWB and supervisor conflict, and coworker
reports of both interpersonal CWB and conflict with
coworkers. In these three instances, emotion did not

SOCIAL STRESSORS AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIORS

151

Table 2
Differential Relationships of Conflict Source with CWB
Dependent variable: Organizational CWB
Self-report

Coworker

Independent variable

Step 1

Step 2

Step 1

Step 2

Conflict with supervisor


Conflict with coworkers
R2 at each step
R2 change

.21*

.19*
.21*
.09**
.04

.19*

.15
.33***
.14***
.11

.05*

.03*

Dependent variable: Organizational CWB


Independent variable
(Coworker report)
Conflict with supervisor
Conflict with coworkers
R2 at each step
R2 change

Self-report

Coworker

Step 1

Step 2

Step 1

Step 2

.17

.07
.17
.05*
.02

.41***

.20*
.38***
.27***
.10

.03

.17***

Dependent variable: Interpersonal CWB


Self-report

Coworker

Independent variable

Step 1

Step 2

Step 1

Step 2

Conflict with coworkers


Conflict with supervisor
R2 at each step
R2 change

.45***

.44***
.10
.21***
.01

.40***

.40***
.02
.16***
0

.20***

.16***

Dependent variable: Interpersonal CWB


Independent variable
(Coworker report)
Conflict with coworkers
Conflict with supervisor
R2 at each step
R2 change
* p .05.

** p .01.

Self-report

Coworker

Step 1

Step 2

Step 1

Step 2

.23**

.30**
.13
.06*
.01

.47***

.46***
.02
.22***
0

.05**

.22***

*** p .001.

reach significance when entered into the regression


model.
Overall, there was convergence between self and
coworker reports for both sources of conflict and
types of CWB. Significant correlations were found
between both data sources for conflict with supervisor (r .42), conflict with coworkers (r .37),
organizational CWB (r .37), and interpersonal
CWB (r .21). However it seems that incumbents
made better discriminations between the two sources
of conflict and the two types of CWB than did coworkers. Specifically, the correlation between the
two sources of conflict among self-reports (r .11)
was much smaller than among coworker reports (r
.58). Similarly, the correlation between interpersonal
and organizational CWB for self-reports (r .45)
was smaller than for coworker reports (r .86).

Discussion
The purpose of this study was to investigate the
impact of different sources of interpersonal conflict at
work on the target specificity of CWB using an
emotion-centered model. Research that has differentiated between conflicts with supervisors and coworkers found differential outcomes depending on
the source of conflict (Frone, 2000). Specifically,
conflict with supervisors impacted outcomes of organizational importance whereas conflict with coworkers resulted in personal outcomes. Researchers have
suggested that the antecedents of CWB aimed at the
organization may be different from those of CWB
aimed at the individuals within an organization (Fox
et al., 2001) and that employees will retaliate against
the agents causing the employee to experience neg-

152

BRUK-LEE AND SPECTOR

Table 3
Hierarchical Regression Analysis of the Mediating Role of Negative Emotions
Dependent variable: Organizational CWB
Self-report
Independent variable
Conflict with supervisor
Emotion
R2 at each step
R2 change

Coworker

Step 1

Step 2

Step 1

Step 2

.21*

.13
.37***
.18***
.13

.19*

.14
.20*
.07**
.04

.05*

.03*

Dependent variable: Organizational CWB


Independent variable
(Coworker report)
Conflict with supervisor
Emotion
R2 at each step
R2 change

Self-report

Coworker

Step 1

Step 2

Step 1

Step 2

.17

.05
.39***
.17***
.14

.41***

.37***
.13
.18***
.01

.03

.17***

Dependent variable: Interpersonal CWB


Self-report

Coworker

Independent variable

Step 1

Step 2

Step 1

Step 2

Conflict with coworkers


Emotion
R2 at each step
R2 change

.45***

.42***
.12
.21***
.01

.40***

.36***
.17*
.19***
.03

.20***

.16***

Dependent variable: Interpersonal CWB


Independent variable
(Coworker report)
Conflict with coworkers
Emotion
R2 at each step
R2 change
* p .05.

** p .01.

Self-report

Coworker

Step 1

Step 2

Step 1

Step 2

.23**

.19*
.17*
.08**
.03

.47***

.44***
.15
.25***
.03

.05*

.22***

*** p .001.

ative emotions or job dissatisfaction (Spector & Fox,


2002; Greenberg & Barling, 1999). In response to the
research need for a more detailed understanding of
the conflictCWB relationship, this study assessed
conflict with both supervisors and coworkers using
multiple data sources and conflicts relationship with
either organizational or interpersonal CWB. Given
the role of negative emotions in the relationship
between conflict and CWB, tests of mediation were
also conducted.
Overall, employees who reported experiencing
more conflict or whose coworkers reported them as
experiencing more conflict also reported experiencing more negative emotions at work. Interestingly,
the cross-source correlation between coworker reports of conflict with supervisor and self-reported
negative emotions was higher than the correlation

using same source data. Similarly, negative emotions


were significantly related to both types of CWB using
multiple data sources. Employees who reported experiencing more negative emotion at work also reported and were reported to have engaged in more
counterproductive behaviors. These findings are consistent with those of other studies that have found
conflict and CWB to be related to the experience of
specific and overall measures of negative emotions
(Fox et al., 2001; Fox & Spector, 1999; Spector et al.,
2003; Spector & Fox, 2002; Spector & Jex, 1998;
Spector, Dwyer & Jex,1988; Spector & OConnell,
1994). A contribution of the current study was in
showing that these findings held not only for all
self-report but for mixed self- and coworker-reports.
Previous research, which has not differentiated
between sources of conflict, has reported inconsistent

SOCIAL STRESSORS AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIORS

relationships between conflict and organizational


CWB. Fox et al. (2001) reported that conflict was
more strongly related to interpersonal CWB than to
organizational CWB. Spector et al. (2003), however,
found a nonsignificant relationship between conflict
and organizational CWB. As a result, it was suggested that the antecedents of organizational CWB
might differ from those of interpersonal CWB and
that conflict is more likely to result in counterproductive behaviors aimed at others in the organization
(Spector et al., 2003). The findings of the current
study support the notion that the antecedents of organizational and interpersonal CWB differ and provide evidence to show that the source of the conflict
is important in determining the target chosen for
counterproductive behaviors. In fact, the results are
strong in supporting that counterproductive behaviors
aimed at other individuals in the organization are
predicted by conflict with coworkers and not with
supervisors. It is possible that previous studies that
have not differentiated between conflict sources and
have found significant relationships only with interpersonal CWB may have been, in fact, assessing
mostly coworker conflict without intending to so.
Further, the fact that both conflict sources are predictive of organizational CWB raises some important
questions for future research. For example, it is clear
that conflict with supervisors is predictive of only
organizational CWB, but why is conflict with coworkers also a significant predictor? It could be that
individuals blame the organization for some of their
conflicts with coworkers because a conflict resolution
system in not in place to alleviate coworker tensions.
It could also be that the causes of some coworker
conflicts are organizational policies, and therefore,
the organization remains to blame. Future stress research may benefit not only from measuring the
conflict source, but also, from assessing the type or
cause of the conflict.
Baron and Kennys (1986) test of mediation was
used to investigate the final four hypotheses, which
predicted that negative emotion would mediate the
relationship between conflict and CWB. The findings
of this study provided mixed evidence for the mediating role of emotions using same source and crosssource data. A fully mediated model was supported
using self-reports of both organizational CWB and
conflict with supervisor, as well as for coworker
reports of organizational CWB and self-reports of
conflict with supervisor. In addition, the results are in
the direction of mediation when using coworker reports of interpersonal CWB and self-reports of conflict with coworkers, as well as, for self-reports of
interpersonal CWB and coworker reports of conflict

153

with coworkers. Nevertheless, mediation was not


supported when the following relationships were investigated: conflict with supervisor (coworker report) organizational CWB (self and coworker),
conflict with coworkers (self)interpersonal CWB
(self), and conflict with coworker (coworker) and
interpersonal CWB (coworker).
Overall, the findings concur with previous conflict
studies that showed stronger support for the mediating role of emotion for organizational CWB than for
interpersonal CWB (Fox et al., 2001; Spector et al.,
2003). Fox and Spector (1999) found that angry
temperament had stronger relationships with counterproductive behaviors aimed at other individuals in
the organization while angry reaction was more
strongly related to organizational CWB. This suggests that interpersonal CWB may be linked more to
trait anger and less to negative affective states, which
may explain the weaker mediation findings with regards to it. Future studies could address this possibility by including a trait measure in addition to a
state measure. Fox, Spector, and Rodopman (2004)
also noted that although emotion is theoretically posited to precede CWB, it may not immediately result
in behavior, thus, making this a complex process to
assess. Further, it is possible that mediation results in
the conflict-CWB relationship are mixed because of
weakness in the level of measurement. That is, although our current measures assess chronic levels of
conflict, emotion, and CWB, the process works at the
individual event level, such that a specific conflict
leads to anger and to CWB (Fox et al., 2004).

Convergence Between Self and Coworker


Reports
Incumbent and coworker reports showed good
convergence for all of the studys variables for which
multiple data sources were collected. The highest
convergence was found for conflict with supervisors
and organizational CWB. This differs from the findings of Spector et al. (2003), who found higher convergence between incumbent and coworker reports
for interpersonal CWB and, therefore, suggested that
coworkers were better able to report on public behaviors than private behaviors, such as putting in to
be paid for more hours than actually worked. This
difference in findings may be due to the measure of
CWB used in each of the studies. The current study
used a subset of the 45 items of the behavioral
checklist included in Spector et al. (2003). The items
were chosen for their base rate of occurrence as
reported by a previous study using the full checklist

154

BRUK-LEE AND SPECTOR

(Fox et al., 2001) and, therefore, mostly represent


behaviors categorized as being minor deviance by
Robinson and Bennett (1995). In turn, it might be that
minor organizational CWB is as publicly known as
some interpersonal behaviors.
Although convergence between data sources was
good, coworkers discriminated less between the two
types of counterproductive behaviors and the two
sources of conflict than did incumbents. Previous
studies showed that incumbents differentiated better
between job characteristic dimensions than did observers (Glick, Jenkins, & Gupta, 1986; Spector, Fox,
& Van Katwyk, 1999). Therefore, the findings are
similar to those of other researchers who used multiple data sources.
Convergence of sources in correlations between
conflict and CWB tended to yield similar patterns in
most cases, although the correlations within coworker measures were higher than within incumbent
measures. For example, the correlation between supervisor conflict and organizational CWB was .21 for
all incumbent data but .41 for all coworker data. The
cross-source correlations were .19 and .17. Similarly,
the correlation between supervisor conflict and personal CWB was .28 for all coworker data, but nonsignificant for the other 3 cases, including all incumbent. Correlations tended to be more consistent for
coworker conflict than supervisor conflict, particularly for personal CWB. The reason for this greater
consistency is not clear and might be worth further
exploration in future research.
In addition, some cross-source relationships were
stronger than same source relationships for the same
variables. Some of these included the relationship
between self-reported negative emotion and coworker reported conflict with supervisors. These
findings address the criticism that self-report measures result in same source bias by dispelling the
possibility that the method of data collection inflates
the relationships between variables.

Limitations
A limitation of this research was the low response
rate of participants. There are several explanations as
to the low number of employees and coworkers who
mailed back questionnaires. Employees were not
contacted by phone before they were mailed a survey
packet, and reminder letters were not mailed to sampled employees. Therefore, there was no personal
contact with the participants to help foster commitment to the study. Data were mostly collected during
the summer months, which are typically slower
working months for universities, and potential par-

ticipants may have been on vacation or away from


their offices during the summer break. Also, because
of the sensitive nature of the behaviors assessed,
employees may have chosen not to participate for
fear of being identified.
Further, although employees were instructed to
choose a coworker who was a part of his or her
department and with whom they worked on a regular
basis, it was not possible to determine how long they
have worked with each other or the amount of time
during the day that they interacted with each other
because of the limited demographic information collected. The nature of the relationship between the
incumbent and the coworker may have impacted the
accurate report of conflict and CWB experienced by
the employee. Also, it was not known if some participants completed the employee questionnaire and
were also asked to complete the coworker questionnaire by someone else in their department. In cases
where this may have occurred, participants may have
been influenced by their own experiences in responding to the coworker questionnaire. As a result, this
may have affected the convergence between employee and coworker reports. It should be noted that
even though incumbents and coworkers are intended
to be different data sources, these may not be independent as there was contact between the two individuals and the coworker was ultimately nominated
by the participant.
In addition, it is worth noting that the sample was
largely female and may not be representative of other
working samples. Although gender was, overall, not
significantly correlated with the variables of interest,
caution is recommended when generalizing these
findings to a mostly male population.
Last, it is possible that the relationships observed
were attenuated due to range restriction in the variables measured. For the most part, employees reported low levels of conflict and CWB. Nevertheless,
the fact that significant relationships were still found
is a promising outlook for future studies using samples with more variability in responses.

Practical Implications and Conclusion


These findings have some interesting practical implications for organizations. Understanding the conflict source is not only vital in understanding its
potential consequences, but also in the development
of conflict management systems. For example, organizations seeking to address troublesome levels of
interpersonal conflict would gain valuable information from assessing the frequency of conflict with
different sources (supervisors, coworkers, customers)

SOCIAL STRESSORS AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIORS

in addition to the traditionally measured conflict


styles. This would allow organizations to focus on
developing the specific conflict management behaviors that are best suited in dealing with supervisors,
coworkers, and other entities. In addition, organizations may maximize the benefits of process and structural intervention programs by tailoring such programs to specific conflict sources given that
organizational outcomes may differ.
From a research standpoint, this study addressed a
call for further investigation of the different antecedents and target specificity of interpersonal and organizational CWB, the different sources of conflict at
work, and the mediating role of negative emotion
(Frone, 2000; Greenberg & Barling, 1999; Fox &
Spector, 1999; Spector & Fox, 2002). Past research
of the relationship between conflict and counterproductive behaviors neglected to differentiate between
conflict with supervisor and coworkers. Consequently, results have suggested that conflict is more
strongly related to behaviors targeted at others in the
organization (Fox et al., 2001; Spector et al., 2003).
However, the current study found evidence for a
differential relationship between the source of the
conflict and the target of the CWB, especially in the
case of interpersonal CWB. Therefore, it seems that
employees are more likely to retaliate against others
when conflict is with coworkers. Further, although
the results are weaker with regards to a differential
impact of conflict on organizational CWB, the results
reveal an interesting possibility. Given the relationship between conflict with coworkers and organizational CWB, it might be that employees view the
organization at fault for coworker conflict and might
also choose to target the organization if they cannot
target other employees.
Interpersonal conflict at work has been identified
as a leading source of stress by numerous researchers
(Bolger et al., 1989; Hahn, 2000; Keenan & Newton,
1985; Narayanan et al., 1999a, b). The current study
provided further evidence for the detrimental impact
that this social stressor can have on employee behavior and affective states, yet more research is needed
in this area. As a result, it is fundamental that future
research of conflict at work differentiates between
coworker and supervisor conflict as this is the 2nd
known study that found differential outcomes for
sources of conflict (see Frone, 2000). In sum, the
social environment is an important correlate of CWB
at work, and the source of interpersonal conflicts at
work can impact the target of the counterproductive
behaviors employees choose to engage in.

155

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Received February 10, 2005


Revision received September 9, 2005
Accepted September 20, 2005 y