Relative Leader-Member Exchange and Unethical Pro-leader Behavior: The Role of Envy and Distributive Justice Climate

Shimin Zhang, Han Li, Shenjiang Mo, Alexander Newman

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


In the team context, leaders usually develop differentiated leader-member exchange relationships with employees, resulting in some employees having relatively inferior relationships with the leader than others. Nevertheless, how and when employees with low relative leader-member exchange (RLMX) relationships react toward the leader have been rarely considered in empirical research. Drawing upon social comparison theory, we develop a cross-level moderated mediation model to examine how and when RLMX may lead to employee’s unethical pro-leader behavior (UPLB). We propose that employees with low RLMX would feel envy which in turn motivates them to engage in UPLB in order to gain the rewards and resources that are distributed by the leader. Further, we argue that envy is less likely to motivate low RLMX employees to engage in UPLB when distributive justice climate is high, because high distributive justice indicates that rewards and resources are distributed fairly (based on work contribution rather than engaging in unethical behaviors that please the leader). Data were obtained from 504 employees in 102 divisional teams in a large retail corporation at three time points. Results of the multilevel moderated mediation analysis show that envy mediates the effect of RLMX on UPLB and that the indirect relationship is moderated by team-level distributive justice climate. These findings suggest the importance of adopting a social comparison perspective to understand the negative consequences of RLMX via emotional mechanisms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)99-111
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • Unethical pro-leader behavior
  • Relative leader-member exchange
  • Envy
  • Distributive justice climate


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