Back-Stabbers and Guardian-Angels: When and How Skip-Level Voice Causes Direct Supervisors’ Retaliation or Reward



We examine how direct supervisors react to a special form of voice, skip-level voice, which refers to employees' voice behavior toward higher-level leaders while skipping over their direct supervisors. Drawing from theory of organizational territoriality, we contend that direct supervisors may see skip-level voice as an intrusion of their authority territory and thus retaliate the voicers, yet this effect is dependent on the content of skip-level voice. Based on a two-time-wave survey conducted in China, we find that direct supervisors tend to exhibit undermining behavior to those skip-level voicers (“back-stabbers”) who frequently voice issues high on authority-territory infringement matter (e.g., voicing about the management problems of their units) but low on authority-territory expansion matter (e.g., voicing to solicit more resources for the units). Yet, direct supervisors intend to promote “guardian-angels” who frequently speak to skip-level leaders on issues low on infringement but high on expansion. 

A biography about Wu Liu:
Dr. Wu Liu joined the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2008 after he obtained his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, U.S.A. He is currently visiting INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France. His passion of research focuses on (1) leader-member and team dynamics on voice behavior, (3) the social functions of emotions, and (3) cross-cultural conflict management. His work has appeared in journals such as Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Journal of Organizational Behavior, and Leadership Quarterly. Professor Liu currently serves on the editorial board of Management and Organization Review.