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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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Constructive problem-solving is a behavioral reaction that does not intend to inflict harm (i.e., non-aggression), but seeks to improve the situation by directly dealing with the aggression of the supervisor (i.e., directed toward the aggressive supervisor). Problem-solving behaviors try to solve specific problems effectively (D’Zurilla, Nezu, & Maydeu-Olivares, 2004), but not all problem-solving activities are “constructive.” Rather, constructive behaviors attempt to resolve stressful situations and generally for all involved (e.g., Folkman, 1984; Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). Therefore, constructive problem-solving attempts to change conditions positively for the victim without harming others intentionally. Workplace aggression research provides some support for these types of behaviors. For example, Keashly, Trott, and MacLean (1994) conducted a qualitative study on workplace emotional abuse (a form of aggression) and found that some individuals tried to reconcile with the abuser; some others asked for help. Further, Tepper et al. (2001) found some respondents engaged in constructive resistance strategies (e.g., ask the abuser to clarify the problem) when dealing with an abusive supervisor. Thus, research suggests that subordinates who perceive supervisor aggression may also engage in constructive problem-solving.

Withdrawal is a behavioral reaction that does not intend to inflict harm (i.e., nonaggression), but seeks to place physical or psychological distance between the victim and the perceived aggressor (i.e., not directed toward the aggressive supervisor). According to reactance theory, when individuals are dealing with a threatening situation, they initially try to change the objective conditions of the situation. However, if they are unable to change the situation or believe they cannot change the situation, they then adapt their own behavior, which gives them a sense of personal control (Rothbaum, Weisz, & Synder, 1982). The organizational literature suggests individuals may withdrawal from their work (e.g., avoiding tasks) or from the job entirely (e.g., quitting, transferring) (Hanisch & Hulin, 1991). Although empirical research on withdrawal is limited in workplace aggression research, qualitative studies suggest perceived aggression (e.g., emotional abuse) is related to intentions to quit, transfers, absenteeism, and decreased productivity and work effort (e.g., Keashly et al., 1994; Pearson, Andersson, & Wegner, 2001). These results suggest that withdrawal is also a likely response to perceived supervisor aggression.

In sum, employees may engage in a variety of behavioral reactions to supervisor aggression. Based on the form of the behavior (aggression versus non-aggression) and the direction of the behavior (directed toward the harmdoer versus not directed toward the harmdoer), employees may respond to supervisor aggression by retaliating, displacing aggression, constructive problem-solving, or withdrawing. Having identified the four basic types of reactions to supervisor aggression, I now consider various situational and individual factors that the aggression literature suggests influence whether an employee reacts one way or another (e.g., Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Baron, 2004). Specifically, I consider fear of retaliation, aggressive modeling, absolute hierarchical status, trait anger, and the need for social approval.

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The Influence of Situational Factors Fear of retaliation. Social psychologists have demonstrated for some time that when individuals fear retaliation from a harmdoer they are less inclined to retaliate against that source (see Bandura, 1983; Berkowitz, 1983). Research shows that when an individual fears further retaliation from the harmdoer, this fear precludes even well-justified retaliation, particularly when the harmdoer has greater power over the victim (Bandera, 1973; Baron, 1971; Taylor, Schmutte, & Leonard, 1977). Therefore, understanding the influence of fear of retaliation in the case of supervisor aggression over subordinates is of particular importance.

The principle of fear of retaliation evolved from the theory of frustration—aggression (Dollard et al., 1939). Dollard et al. (1939) argued that when individuals fear retaliation from the source of their frustration, retaliatory acts of aggression are suppressed because they understand that aggressing against this source may promote more attacks against them. In this way, individuals deter retaliatory reactions due to learned inhibitions (Bandura, 1983; Berkowitz, 1983; Sears, 1948). They understand the consequences of their behavior through similar situations experienced in the past or through vicarious learning (watching what happens to others) (Bandura, 1983; Berkowitz, 1983).

Therefore, Dollard et al. argued fear of retaliation would influence aggressive reactions to frustrating events (e.g., perceived supervisor aggression). Specifically, they argue that fear of retaliation heightens displaced aggression. To reiterate, displaced aggression allows victims to vent hostilities without fear of recourse. Social psychology research has provided evidence that fear of retaliation influences displaced aggression (see Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000, for a review). Workplace aggression research also provides support for the influence of fear of retaliation. For example, Fox and Spector (1999) found fear of retaliation to be the strongest predictor of counterproductive workplace behavior (CWB). In their study, when individuals believed they could engage in CWBs without penalty (or without fear of retribution), they engaged in more CWBs targeted against the organization. They argued the results provide support for Dollard et al.’s arguments about fear of retaliation and aggressive reactions. Further, in a qualitative study, Tripp and Bies (1997) attempted to understand why individuals did not engage in revenge. One of the most consistent deterring factors among the would-be avengers was fear of retaliation.





Fear of retaliation has also been studied in the context of sexual harassment and whistleblowing. This research consistently shows individuals who fear retaliation from the source of the harm were far less likely to report sexual harassment (e.g., Fitzgerald, 1993;

Fitzgerald & Ormerod, 1993; Hesson-McInnis & Fitzgerald, 1992) or blow the whistle (Near & Miceli, 1986). Near and Miceli (1996) argue that individuals generally do not report incidents unless they believe they have a “reasonable supposition of success,” which is less likely when fear of retaliation is high. Research has also shown that fear of retaliation heightens feelings that nothing can be done to change the situation, resulting in greater incidents of absenteeism and turnover (Allen & Erikson, 1989; Koss, Goodman et al., 1994). Thus, these studies suggest that fear of retaliation may heighten withdrawal and lessen constructive problem-solving reactions.

Overall, this review suggests that individuals victimized by supervisor aggression who also fear of retaliation from that source will not react directly (i.e., retaliatory aggression and constructive problem-solving), and instead react against other targets (i.e., displaced aggression

and withdrawal). Therefore, I predict:

Hypothesis 1: Fear of retaliation will moderate the positive relationships between perceived supervisor aggression and (a) displaced aggression and (b) withdrawal such that the relationships will be stronger when fear of retaliation is high rather than low, and the positive relationships between perceived supervisor aggression and (c) retaliatory aggression and (d) constructive problem-solving will be stronger when fear of retaliation

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Aggressive modeling. Researchers have applied principles of social learning theory to understand aggression. Specifically, theorists argue individuals develop aggressive behavior patterns through vicarious learning or direct experiences (Bandura, 1983, 2001; Mischel, 1973, 1999). Aggression becomes a learned behavior either by the individual experiencing situations in the past that call for an aggressive reaction or by observing social models (e.g., parents, supervisors, peers) who exhibit aggressive behaviors (Bandura, 1983). Models who engage in aggression communicate to the observer that aggression is acceptable and supported. Therefore, when aggressive behaviors are modeled by others and supported in the work environment, employees may feel more inclined to engage in aggression themselves.

Similarly, social information processing theory suggests individuals develop expectations about appropriate behavior through the environment (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978: 226). O’Reilly and Caldwell (1985) argue that observing behavior that is supported in the environment not only communicates “the way things should be done” but also “the way things ought to be done.” Stated differently, how people behave in organizations is not always consistent with organizational rules and regulations; rather, behavioral standards are conveyed more so by watching how coworkers and supervisors behave at work. Therefore, work environments that support aggressive behaviors (e.g., supervisors and coworkers actively engage in aggression themselves) may influence and promote aggression.

Workplace aggression research provides support for social learning and environmental effects. A study by Robinson and O’Leary-Kelly (1998) specifically explored the influence of work group behaviors on individual group member’s antisocial behavior. They found that when individuals felt group members exhibited antisocial behavior, they engaged in antisocial behavior themselves. Further, a study by Aquino and Douglas (2003) investigated the moderating effects of aggressive modeling on the relationship of identity threat and antisocial behavior. They define identity threat as “any overt action by another party that challenges, calls into question, or

diminishes a person’s sense of competence, dignity, or self-worth” (Aquino & Douglas, 2003:

196). Acts that threatened one’s identity are likely to be perceived as aggression because they are a personal attack on an individual’s abilities and self-respect (Bushman & Anderson, 2002).

Aquino and Douglas found frequent exposure to aggressive social models enhanced antisocial behavior when individuals felt their identity was threatened.

The results of these studies suggest that individuals who experience supervisor aggression who are also exposed to aggressive models would believe aggression is acceptable in the workplace and, therefore, be more inclined to engage in aggressive reactions to supervisor aggression (i.e., retaliatory aggression and displaced aggression). Further, because modeling aggression suggests aggression is supported in the environment, they would be less likely to engage in non-aggressive reactions (i.e., constructive problem-solving and withdrawal).

Therefore, I predict:

Hypothesis 2: Aggressive modeling will moderate the positive relationships between perceived supervisor aggression and (a) retaliatory aggression and (b) displaced aggression such that the relationships will be stronger when high aggressive modeling is high rather than low, and the positive relationships between perceived supervisor aggression and (c) constructive problem-solving and (d) withdrawal will be stronger when aggressive modeling is low rather than high.

Absolute hierarchical status. Absolute hierarchical status is an individual’s hierarchical position within the entire organization (e.g., non-management, middle-management, executive;

Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2001; Bies & Tripp, 1996). High-status positions are often accompanied with symbolic and material benefits (e.g., large salaries, autonomy, prestige), whereas low-status positions are often accompanied by a disproportionately smaller share of these benefits, if not a larger share of negative ones (e.g., small salaries, mistreatment, bad working conditions) (Aquino & Douglas, 2003). Further, the position an individual holds in an organization communicates power; specifically, those in high-status positions are generally able to administer benefits (e.g., valued resources) or punishments to others (Emerson, 1962; Kipnis, 1972).

Due to this power differential, individuals in lower-status positions feel the need to aggressively defend themselves when they feel they are being oppressed by those in power (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996; Daly & Wilson, 1988; Gilligan, 1996). Consistent with this theme, Aquino and colleagues (Aquino & Douglas, 2003; Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, in press) argue that employees in low-status positions are more sensitive to offenses from higher-ups, such as supervisor aggression. Results from their research shows that individuals in lower-status positions were more inclined to seek revenge (Aquino et al., in press) and engage in antisocial behaviors (Aquino & Douglas, 2002) than those in higher-status positions.

In contrast, individuals in high-status positions are generally bound by normative constraints, meaning the position demands reputable behavior (Hogan & Emler, 1981; Tripp & Bies, 1997). Therefore, acts of aggression imply unprofessionalism and acts of withdrawal (absenteeism, decreased work effort) imply incompetence, which conflict with the behavioral norms of high-status positions. Consistent with these arguments, Tripp and Bies (1997) found many professional employees did not engage in revenge because they found it “unprofessional.” Thus, individuals in high-status positions would be less likely to engage in behaviors viewed as unprofessional (e.g., retaliatory aggression, displaced aggression, and withdrawal), and more

likely to engage in other, more professionally-oriented, behaviors (e.g., constructive problemsolving). I predict:

Hypothesis 3: Absolute hierarchical status will moderate the positive relationship between perceived supervisor aggression and (a) constructive problem-solving such that the relationship will be stronger when high absolute hierarchical status is high rather than low, and the positive relationships between perceived supervisor aggression and (b) retaliatory aggression, (c) displaced aggression, and (d) withdrawal will be stronger when absolute hierarchical status is low rather than high.



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