Managers at all levels of an organization are often faced with a moral dilemma where rules conflict with human sentiment. For example, if an employee has been working overtime all weekend to deal with an urgent and difficult issue for the company, but there is no clear policy in place to compensate him (her) with time or money, should the supervisor bend the rules to give him (her) a few days off or an extra monetary incentive, or just simply say “thank you”? According to a survey of CEOs, more than 70% of managers in such situations tend to choose breaking the rules to achieve practical pro-social goals [1
]. This phenomenon is academically known as Managerial Pro-Social Rule Breaking (MPSRB) [2
], which is more prevalent in the Chinese context.
Effective managerial behavior contributes to employees’ sustainable perception and attitude in the workplace, which further leads to organizations’ sustainable competitiveness, performance, and development. However, as a kind of managerial behavior, the consequence of MPSRB is controversial in theory. From the perspective of particularism, MPSRB show such qualities as managers’ virtue, goodwill, and responsibility, and provide valuable “resources” to employees, leading to sustainable positive attitudes among employees [3
]. However, from the perspective of universalism, even motivated by altruism, MPSRB will undermine the authority and credibility of the institution’s system, increase the possibility of leaders’ opportunistic behaviors and exploitation of their subordinates in future transactions, and lead to unsustainable attitudes among employees [2
]. It is clear that MPSRB is not only the product of managers’ moral dilemmas, but also the contradictory combination of human sentiment and reason. “Pro-social” reflects the basic emotional need, while “rule breaking” reflects the abandonment of reason. Moreover, their influence on employees’ attitudes is also complex, and there may be a double-edged sword effect [4
Previous studies about prosocial rule breaking primarily focused on the employee level. Morrison [5
] was the first to explicitly introduce this construct, and he defined it as “employees intentionally violates a formal organizational policy, regulation, or prohibition with the primary intention of promoting the welfare of the organization or one of its stakeholders”. He points out that this kind of behavior is mainly driven by three motivations, namely to improve work efficiency, help colleagues and help customers, and he developed a six-item scale. However, this is only a response scale in a specific scenario experiment. If other scholars want to use this scale, they must replicate the experimental scenario or revise the scale. Dahling et al. [6
] developed a 13-item general prosocial rule breaking scale based on the three-dimensional structure of Morrison [5
], which has been widely used, and promoted the empirical study of the antecedent factors of prosocial rule breaking among employees.
In general, these studies focus on four themes: first, personal factors, such as risk-taking propensity, conscientiousness, organizational identity, and core self-evaluation [6
]; second, leadership factors, such as benevolent leadership, and moral leadership [7
]; third, organizational factors, such as organizational fairness, counterproductivity norms, and bureaucracy [11
]; fourth, job characteristics, such as job meaning, autonomy, job demand, and work systems [14
]. Although most of these studies focus on the employee level, the findings of individual, organizational, and job characteristics factors also apply to the manager level.
Employees’ prosocial rule breaking should be generally studied as the dependent variable, while MPSRB should be studied as independent variables to explore its impact on employees’ sustainable attitudes and behavior. Apart from obvious differences in their theoretical constructions, their causes and manifestations are also distinct. Therefore, it is necessary to redefine MPSRB and develop a new scale.
Some exploratory studies have explored the causes and manifestations of MPSRB. For example, Veiga et al. [1
] carried out interview research on CEOs and found that MPSRB occurred mostly for three reasons, namely improving performance, because rules were wrong, and social embedding. Liu and Li [16
] summarized three main manifestations of MPSRB in the Chinese context based on interviews. At present, most studies on the consequences of MPSRB only focus on its positive side. For example, through the social learning process, a trickle-down effect will occur, leading to employees’ prosocial rule breaking, which is moderated by leadership empowerment and employees’ courage [17
]. Moreover, similar behaviors, such as “positive deviant leadership”, “positive political behavior”, “non-bureaucratic personality”, and “non-bureaucratic behavior” were found to alleviate the conflict between rigid rules and flexible organizational goals, and contribute to organizational procedure improvement, change, project duration and success, creative destruction and sustainable performance, etc. [18
However, some studies have found the opposite, pointing out that the MPSRB will not only damage the interests of other group members [6
], but also undermine the institution’s system of organization and negatively influence employee attitudes, such as procedural justice, psychological contract, and attribution to leadership [2
], which indirectly lead to negative working behaviors among employees and turnover intention [2
] and decrease service performance [24
]. Hence, MPSRB is possibly a double-edged sword for organizations, exerting positive and negative effects on employees’ sustainable attitude and behavior simultaneously, thereby attracting further studies to explore their respective theoretical mechanisms. The two opposite mechanisms are moderated by the employee’s values and psychological maturity, and the organization’s management practices [4
], and under the different conditions of these moderation factors, positive and negative effects compete with each other and tradeoffs [4
Although some progress has been made in the research on MPSRB, in general, it is still lacking. The research is still in the exploratory stage and the theoretical framework is not perfect due to two deficiencies. Firstly, the concept definition, dimension dividing, and measurement are based on the study of Dahling et al. [6
] at the employee level, which cannot fully reflect all the characteristics of the manager level and, particularly, the analysis in the Chinese organizational context is also lacking, which limits the validity of previous conclusions. Secondly, empirical evidence of the double-edged sword effect is scarce except in the research of Li et al. [25
], making the breadth and the existence of this effect unproven and insufficient.
To bridge the above theoretical gaps, three studies were conducted subsequently, and their contents and logical links are as follows: study 1 was conducted to conceptualize the construction of the MPSRB, and identify its sub-dimensions based on the analysis of traditional Chinese culture, as this provides a theoretical basis for the two subsequent studies. Study 2 was conducted to develop the scale for MPSRB following the standard scale development procedures, and to test its reliability and construct validity, which provided a measurement for the last study. Lastly, study 3 was conducted as a specific application of the scale and as a test for its predictive validity.
Firstly, this paper defined the concept and connotation of MPSRB. It is pointed out that, in addition to the three characteristics proposed by Morrison [5
], namely altruistic motivation, formal rules, and voluntariness, another three characteristics were identified, namely rules that are made within the organization, those only relating to the internal management, and those with no serious consequences.
Secondly, the Chinese traditional cultural background and structure of MPSRB were analyzed. It is pointed out that the preference of favor and power over rules is the essential condition that leads to MPSRB; moreover, the cultural orientation of benevolence and righteousness, pragmatic reasonability, and fairness and justice induce different motivations for managers to exhibit such behaviors. According to this, we identify three dimensions of MPSRB, which are benevolence-based, pragmatic-based, and justice-based.
Thirdly, the MPSRB scale was developed with good reliability and validity. Through interviews, typical cases were obtained and the initial scale was formed. The initial scale was refined through a preliminary survey. The reliability and validity of the final scale were then tested by the formal survey. A 12-item MPSRB scale was formed, in which the benevolence-based, pragmatic-based, and justice-based dimensions included four, five, and three items, respectively.
Fourthly, MPSRB is a double-edged sword for employees’ sustainable organizational identification perception; in addition to its positive direct impact, there is also a negative indirect impact through the mediation of procedural justice perception.
Although this article has its basis in China, and the MPSRB scale developed in study 2 is more suitable for Chinese employees, the double-edged sword effect discussed in study 3 is universal. Its positive direct effect and the negative mediating effect of MPSRB on SOIDP exist not only in the Chinese context but also in other countries, varying only in their intensity. For example, the negative mediation effect of PIP may be stronger in the context of Western culture than in the context of Chinese culture. As a result, the conclusions of this study are transnationally valuable and meaningful.