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«UNDERSTANDING EMPLOYEES’ BEHAVIORAL REACTIONS TO AGGRESSION IN ORGANIZATIONS by MARIE S. MITCHELL B.S., George Mason University, 1993 M.A.H.R., ...»

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Over the last decade, understanding workplace aggression has been of growing interest to organizational researchers (e.g., Fox & Spector, 2005; Griffith & O’Leary-Kelly, 2004;

Kelloway, Barling, & Hurrell, in press). Much of the research on workplace aggression focuses on the destructive behaviors of employees. Recently, however, greater emphasis has been given to manager or supervisor aggression (e.g., Tepper, 2000; Tepper, Duffy, & Shaw, 2001; Tepper, Duffy, Henle, & Lambert, in press). Indeed, even the popular press has highlighted a variety of destructive leadership exemplars, such as Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, and “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap (Byrne, 1999; Joyce, 2005). Although a variety of descriptions have emerged in the literature (e.g., abusive supervision (Tepper, 2000), managerial bullies (Neuman & Keashly, 2003), tyrannical bosses (Ashforth, 1994)), one common theme among them is that supervisor aggression involve acts perceived by employees to intentionally cause harm.

Research suggests supervisor aggression has pervasive and negative consequences. For example, studies have shown that employees who work with aggressive supervisors are less satisfied, committed, and trusting, and are more psychologically distressed (e.g., Ashforth, 1997;

Keashly, Trott, & MacLean, 1994; Tepper, 2000). Yet, far less research has investigated employees’ behavioral reactions to supervisor aggression. Some theorists claim employees will seek to retaliate (e.g., Bies & Tripp, 1996, 1998; Folger & Skarlicki, 1998); still, we know that employees do no always react aggressively (e.g., Keashly et al., 1994; Tepper et al., 2001).

Consequently, we know little about the behaviors employees engage in as a consequence of supervisor aggression, as well as what makes employees react one way or another.

The purpose of this paper is to develop and test a model of employees’ behavioral reactions to perceived supervisor aggression. I first define perceived supervisor aggression. I then draw from the aggression literature to review how employees may respond to aggressive behavior, and develop a typology of employees’ behavioral reactions to perceived aggression.

Further, I outline and test various situational and individual factors that influence what makes employees react one way or another. Lastly, conclusions are drawn and implications for future research are discussed.

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Aggression is defined as behavior that is carried out with the intention to injure or aggravate another person (Eron, 1987). This definition contains two important components.

First, aggression is noxious behavior that the recipient would otherwise like to avoid. Second, aggression is behavior that is driven by motives to harm the intended target. Intention to harm is something that is not easily defined, but is more or less inferred from the behavior itself (Geen, 1990). This suggests aggression is really defined by the target or the recipient of the behavior.

Tedeschi and colleagues (Brown & Tedeschi, 1976; Tedeschi & Bond, 2001) argue aggression is perceived when the target believes the offender’s behavior intended to cause them harm.

In this study, the targets considered are the employees. Workplace aggression research suggests supervisors are a common source of employees’ aggression at work. For example, a study by Neuman and Keashly (2003) reported 35% of the respondents indicated supervisors were the main source of their aggression, and, overall, supervisors were considered the most persistent source of aggression at work. These results are consistent with other research, which has identified supervisors as the primary instigator of workplace aggression (e.g., Cortina, Magley, Williams, & Langhout, 2001; Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996; Keashly et al., 1994).





In order to study employees’ reactions to supervisor aggression, it is particularly important to understand the supervisor’s behavior from the employee’s perspective. Supervisors often engage in behaviors that are not intended to harm employees but the behavior is interpreted as such. For example, a supervisor may use a sharp tone with an employee for what is believed to be good cause (e.g., the employee was habitually late for work or missed important deadlines);

still, the employee feels as though the supervisor was intentionally humiliating and ridiculing. In this way, the supervisor’s intention is irrelevant. What matters is the employee’s interpretation of the behavior. Simply put, employees who do not believe they are intentionally harmed may not believe the supervisor was aggressing against them and therefore may not react. Similarly, behaviors that the supervisor did not intend to cause harm may, nonetheless, be perceived as intentionally harmful and would stimulate a response. It is only those supervisory behaviors that employees perceive as aggression—intentionally harmful acts—that may provoke a reaction from employees.

Thus, in this paper, supervisor aggression involves perceived acts of aggression.

Perceived aggression is behavior that the recipient—the subordinate—believes was carried out with the intention to cause harm (e.g., verbal attacks, threats, isolating the employee from others and important projects). Perceived supervisor aggression, therefore, is behavior perceived by the subordinate as intentionally harmful, whether or not the behavior (1) successfully harms the subordinate or (2) was intended to do so by the supervisor.

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Research that has investigated behaviors that can be considered supervisor aggression (e.g., verbal abuse, threats, forcefulness, yelling, intimidation) suggests these acts produce dysfunctional consequences. For example, a study by Ashforth (1997) found employees who worked with tyrannical bosses, defined as supervisors who exercise “absolute power oppressively or brutally” (Ashforth, 1994: 755), had higher levels of frustration, stress, and work alienation, and lower levels of work-unit cohesion. Further, research on abusive supervision has shown employees who are dealing with persistent supervisor mistreatment had lower levels of satisfaction, commitment and justice perceptions, and higher levels of role conflict and psychological distress (e.g., Duffy, Ganster, & Pagon, 2002; Tepper, 2000). Research on behavioral reactions has been more limited. Ashforth (1997) assessed performance outcomes, but the results were not conclusive. One other exception is Tepper et al.’s (2001) study, which shows abusive supervision was related to dysfunctional resistance (e.g., avoidance) and constructive resistance (e.g., asking the supervisor for more explanation).

These results are consistent with aggression research in social psychology. Specifically, social psychologists contend aggression can produce two basic reactions: aggression or nonaggression (e.g., Anderson, 1997; Anderson, Deuser, & DeNeve, 1995). Models of aggression, however, mainly focus on the processes and factors that instigate aggression. Indeed, workplace aggression researchers have drawn from aggression models to explain why individuals engage in aggression at work (e.g., Baron, 2004; Neuman & Baron, 1998). In doing so, both literatures also emphasize that when individuals experience aversive events (such as perceived aggression) they may choose to react aggressively or non-aggressively. How they react is dependent on situational factors (e.g., aggressive cues) and individual characteristics of the recipient of the perceived aggression (e.g., personality). (See Anderson & Bushman, 2002 and Baron, 2004, for reviews of both literatures.) A second defining characteristic of reactions to aggression is the direction of the response (e.g., Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939; Buss, 1961). One of the dominant theories of aggression is Dollard et al.’s (1939) theory of frustration—aggression. They argue that individuals generally wish to retaliate against the source of the harm but that some instances do not allow for retaliation. Consequently, victims react on other, more available targets. Buss (1961) argued that reactions to aversive events are based on what is learned. When individuals understand retaliation will produce further harm to them, they react against other targets. Baron and Neuman (Baron, 2004; Neuman & Baron, 1998) have elaborated on Buss’ contentions, arguing that restraining factors (e.g., fear of retaliation) inhibit retaliatory responses and promote reactions against organizational members, the organization itself, as well as organizational outsiders.

Based on this review, I suggest reactions to aggression can be defined by two primary dimensions: the form of the behavior (aggression versus non-aggression) and the direction of the behavior (toward the harmdoer versus not toward the harmdoer). An aggressive reaction involves any behavior with the intent to inflict harm; a non-aggressive reaction involves any behavior lacking the intent to inflict harm. Reactions directed toward the harmdoer are those targeted against the perceived aggressor (the supervisor); reactions not directed toward the harmdoer may be targeted against someone or something that is not the perceived aggressor (coworkers, the organization, and organizational outsiders).

These dimensions form the basis of a typology of behavioral reactions to aggression (shown in Figure 1). The two dimensions produce four categories of reactions: (1) retaliatory aggression (aggression/behavior directed toward the perceived aggressor), (2) displaced aggression (aggression/behavior not directed toward the perceived aggressor), (3) constructive problem-solving (non-aggression/behavior directed toward the perceived aggressor), and (4) withdrawal (non-aggression/behavior not directed toward the perceived aggressor). Each category is described further below.

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Retaliatory aggression is a behavioral reaction that intends to inflict harm (i.e., aggression) on the harmdoer (i.e., directed toward the aggressive supervisor). Skarlicki and Folger (2004) argue retaliation allows individuals to “even the score” or “get back at” their transgressor. Workplace aggression research provides support for these contentions. For example, Bies and colleagues (Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2001; Bies & Tripp, 1996, 1998) found when individuals were mistreated, they sought revenge. Similarly, Skarlicki and colleagues (Skarlicki & Folger, 1997; Skarlicki, Folger, & Tesluk, 1999) found perceived mistreatment instigates retaliation. Further, Jones (2003) found that individuals differentiate the source of the harm with their reactions, and when respondents felt the source intentionally tried to harm them, they specifically and intentionally try to get back at the source. Thus, perceived supervisor aggression may instigate retaliatory reactions directed at the supervisor.

Displaced aggression is a behavioral reaction that intends to inflict harm (i.e., aggression) on a target that is not the source of the perceived aggression (i.e., not directed toward the aggressive supervisor). The concept of displaced aggression was initially presented by Dollard et al. (1939), who argued that individuals displace aggression when they are unable to retaliate. They believed aggression is a natural reaction to frustrating events (like perceived supervisor aggression) and the act of not aggressing on the source of harm builds negative energy, which ultimately gets released on other targets. Although displaced aggression has only recently been evidenced in the workplace aggression literature (e.g., Fox & Spector, 1999;

Mitchell & Ambrose, 2004), a meta-analysis of psychology experiments demonstrates displaced aggression is a robust reaction to perceived aggression (Marcus-Newhall, Pedersen, Carlson, & Miller, 2000). Therefore, subordinates who perceive aggression by their supervisors may also displace aggression on other targets (e.g., coworkers, organization, outsiders).



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