«UNDERSTANDING EMPLOYEES’ BEHAVIORAL REACTIONS TO AGGRESSION IN ORGANIZATIONS by MARIE S. MITCHELL B.S., George Mason University, 1993 M.A.H.R., ...»
Yet, social psychologists suggest that individuals do not always retaliate. Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, and Sears’ (1939) argued that, although individuals generally wish to retaliate against the source of the harm, some situations do not allow for it. The literature suggests there are two main reasons individuals refrain from retaliation: (1) the source is not available (therefore the victim lacks opportunity to aggress) and (2) further attacks are feared and expected from the source (Marcus-Newhall, Pedersen, Carlson, & Miller, 2000).
Dollard et al. argue that aggression is a natural reaction to frustrating events (like perceived aggression), and when victims are unable to react aggressively against the perceived harmdoer, they “displace” (or redirect) their aggression on other, more available targets.
Similarly, Buss (1961) argued that reactions to aversive events are based on learned responses.
Buss contends that aggressive reactions not targeted at the harmdoer allow victims to respond without penalty of recourse.
Although specific investigations of displaced aggression are rare in workplace aggression research, studies that have investigated forms of displaced aggression suggest individuals do react against targets that are not the source of their hostilities (e.g., Aquino & Douglas, 2003;
Fox & Spector, 1999). Further, a meta-analysis of psychology experiments found displaced aggression was a consistent and robust response to provocation when respondents were unable to retaliate against the provoking source (see Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000).
In short, research provides substantial support for the notion that perceived aggression influences aggressive reactions; however, we also know individuals do not always react aggressively. According to Berkowitz (1983, 1989), non-aggressive reactions occur because non-angry emotions (e.g., fear, anxiety) dominate reactions. Miller (1941, 1948) suggested that when non-aggressive responses are strengthened by the situation, individuals are less likely to aggress and more likely to react non-aggressively. Similarly, Sears (1941) argued that reactions depend on learned responses. Therefore, individuals’ learned experiences guide what is an appropriate reaction to perceived aggression. For example, memories and vicarious learning that trigger aggressive reactions influence aggression; memories and vicarious learning that trigger constructive solutions elicit more positive reactions.
The stress literature suggests that individuals may engage in non-aggression to deal with the situation effectively (e.g., Folkman, 1984; Folkman & Lazarus, 1980, 1985; Lazarus & Folkman, 1983). For example, problem-solving activities allow victims to try to solve the problem encountered (D’Zurilla, Nezu, & Maydeu-Olivares, 2004). Yet, not all problem-solving activities are “constructive.” Indeed, some may even be considered aggressive (e.g., retaliation).
Constructive problem-solving is a specific type of coping activity where individuals seek to better the situation for themselves and generally for all involved. Thoits (1994) calls constructive activities “reversals,” where the victim attempts to convert the negative situation into a positive one or, at least, minimize the negative one. The justice and satisfaction literatures describe these acts as “voice” (Farrell, 1983; Rusbult, Farrell, Rogers, & Mainous, 1988; Lind & Tyler, 1988; Tyler, 1987). In essence, when individuals are mistreated (which also enhances dissatisfaction), they may feel empowered to speak out and remedy the problem.
Interesting, constructive problem-solving behaviors have not been a traditional focus of workplace aggression research. However, research suggests individuals may react nonaggressively and in a constructive manner. For example, in a qualitative study on emotional abuse, Keashly et al. (1994) found some individuals tried to reconcile with the harmdoer; some others asked for help to stop the abuse. Further, Tepper et al. (2001) conducted survey study on resistance strategies to abusive supervision. They found that, while some individuals engaged in aggressive resistance, which they called dysfunctional resistance (e.g., purposefully avoid the supervisor), others engaged in constructive resistance (e.g., ask the supervisor to clarify the problem).
Overall, this review suggests individuals may react to perceived aggression with aggression or non-aggression. Victims of perceived aggression may react with retaliatory aggression. If, however, retaliation is not an option, they may displace their aggression on others. Further, others still may attempt to resolve the situation constructively. I recognize that individuals may react to perceived aggression with reactions other than retaliatory aggression, displaced aggression, and constructive problem-solving. However, the purpose of this paper is not to delineate the broad scheme of reactions to aggression, but rather to test what makes individuals react aggressively or non-aggressively, and constructive problem-solving behaviors represent an opposite reaction to aggression.
Aggression researchers argue that characteristics of the situation and the individual influence reactions to aggression (e.g., Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Baron, 2004). Therefore, I now consider the moderating effects of factors suggested to influence aggressive and nonaggressive behaviors; specifically, fear of retaliation, trait anger, locus of control, and need of social approval.
Situational and Individual Moderators of Reactions to Perceived Aggression Fear of Retaliation as a Situational Moderator of Reactions to Perceived Aggression Some researchers argue that the threat of future punishment can influence reactions to aversive events, like aggression (Dollard et al., 1939; Tedeschi & Felson, 1994). In particular, they argue dominant aggressive tendencies can be weakened through expected punishments.
Dollard et al. (1939) stated that “the strength of inhibition of any act of aggression varies positively with the amount of punishment anticipated to be a consequence of that act” (Dollard et al., 1939: 33). From this notion, fear of punishment has been integrated by workplace aggression researchers to study preventative strategies of workplace violence (e.g., Braverman, 1999).
According to Craig (2005), acts of aggression communicate intimidating social demeanor, which provoke fear in others and act to control their actions by building expectations of future aggressive attacks. Within the context of perceived aggression, victims who feared retaliation may not engage in retaliatory aggression because they believe the aggressor would seek retribution shortly thereafter.
Essentially, fear of retaliation is a learned inhibition. Individuals learn by watching their environment, others around them, or through their own experiences that aggressing against a harmdoer promotes further attacks against them (Bandura, 1983; Berkowitz, 1983, 1998). They evaluate the situation to assess the potential consequences of their own behavior. If further attacks are expected, they may refrain from reacting with retaliation. However, aggression research suggests that because individuals differ in what they know, reactions may vary (Berkowitz, 1998).
Research suggests that fear of retaliation heightens displaced aggression, while lessening retaliatory aggression. For example, Fox and Spector (1999) found that fear of retaliation was the strongest, negative predictor of counterproductive workplace behavior (CWB). Those who feared retaliation engaged in more incidents of CWBs targeted against the organization than against specific individuals. Further, Marcus-Newhall et al. (2000) conducted a meta-analysis of aggression experiments in the social psychology literature and found when individuals feared retaliation from the provoking source they were more likely to displace aggression.
Research also suggests fear of retaliation influences constructive problem-solving behaviors. Studies on sexual harassment have shown that victimization strengthens fear of retaliation and perceptions of hopelessness; essentially, victims believe that nothing can be done to change the situation (e.g., Allen & Erikson, 1989; Koss, Goodman et al., 1994). Sexual harassment research also suggests victims who feared retaliation from their harasser were less likely to report them (Fitzgerald, 1993; Fitzgerald & Ormerod, 1993; Hesson-McInnis & Fitzgerald, 1992). These results are consistent with the whistleblowing literature, which also shows that fear of retaliation lessens the likelihood that victims report wrongdoings (e.g., Near & Miceli, 1986, 1996).
Overall, the review suggests fear of retaliation will influence reactions to perceived aggression. Specifically, high fear of retaliation will strengthen the relationship between perceived supervisor aggression and displaced aggression, but will weaken the relationship of perceived aggression and retaliatory aggression and constructive problem-solving. Therefore, I
Hypothesis 1: Fear of retaliation will moderate the positive relationship between perceived aggression and (a) displaced aggression such that the relationships will be stronger when fear of retaliation is high rather than low, and the positive relationships between perceived aggression and (b) retaliatory aggression and (c) constructive problem-solving will be stronger when fear of retaliation is low rather than high.
Individual Characteristics as Moderators of Reactions to Perceived Aggression Trait Anger. Researchers have argued for some time that anger promotes aggression (see Anderson & Bushman, 2002 for a review). Berkowitz (1983, 1993) argued that thoughts, feelings, and action tendencies are linked in memory, such that individuals with a past history of anger would be more likely to engage in aggression when they become angry. Similarly, Spielberger (1991, 1996) argued anger can be a stable trait, in which individuals hold the predisposition to respond to situations with hostility. Research suggests individuals with high trait anger experience anger more easily, particularly when they are dealing with annoying conditions (Spielberger, 1996; Spielberger, Krasner, & Solomon, 1988). Given this tendency, understanding the influence of trait anger is highly relevant in the context of reactions to perceived aggression.
Indeed, research provides support for the notion that trait anger heightens aggressive reactions. For instance, Deffenbacher (1992) found trait anger intensified negative reactions to personal attacks. Likewise, workplace aggression research has shown that high trait anger strengthens aggression. Douglas and Martinko (2001) found respondents high in trait anger believed that the harmdoer purposefully and unnecessarily offended them, which thereby strengthened revenge attitudes. Fox and Spector (1999) found trait anger was positively related to counterproductive workplace behaviors. Further, a meta-analysis of antecedents of workplace aggression shows trait anger is a significant predictor of workplace aggression (Hershcovis, Turner, Barling, Arnold, Dupré, Inness, LeBlanc, & Sivanathan, in press).
However, research also suggests trait anger influences non-aggressive reactions as well.
For example, in experimental study using a prisoner’s dilemma, Kassinove, Roth, Owens, and Fuller (2002) found that while trait anger strengthened competitive reactions, it also weakened neutral and cooperative reactions. Further, Deffenbacher (1992) found high trait angry individuals were less able to engage in constructive coping activities when they were personally attacked (Deffenbacher, 1992).
Based on these arguments, I predict trait anger will moderate reactions to perceived aggression such that trait anger will strengthen the positive relationship between perceived aggression and aggressive reactions (both retaliatory and displaced aggression), but will weaken
the relationship of perceived aggression and non-aggressive reactions (i.e., constructive problemsolving). Therefore, I predict:
Hypothesis 2: Trait anger will moderate the positive relationships between perceived aggression and (a) retaliatory aggression and (b) displaced aggression such that the relationships will be stronger when trait anger is high rather than low, and the positive relationship between perceived supervisor aggression and (c) constructive problemsolving will be stronger when trait anger is high rather than low.
Locus of Control (LOC). Rotter (1966) developed the concept of locus of control (LOC) to describe individuals’ attributions of their own successes and failures. He argued individuals’ LOC influences beliefs about the extent to which individuals believe events are contingent on their own behavior. Individuals with a strong sense of LOC have an internal orientation and believe life events are based on their motivation, abilities and other factors of self. In contrast, individuals with a low LOC hold an external orientation, and believe that events are the consequence of luck, fate, powerful others or other complex forces.
In general, research suggests LOC affects individuals’ ability to cope effectively with stressful situations, like perceived aggression (Anderson, 1977; Kobasa, Maddi, & Kahn, 1982).
For example, Spector and O’Connell (1994) found that externals felt more threatened and experienced more stress when dealing with interpersonal conflict than internals. Researchers argue that internals are better able to handle stress because they see themselves as “causal agents,” who are able to change situations directly (Fiske & Taylor, 1984). In contrast, externals, guided by futility beliefs, are less able to see opportunities to control stressful situations (Greenberger & Strasser, 1991). Research by Hahn (2000) supported these contentions; he found internals engaged in more problem-focused activities than externals.
Aggression theorists argue that LOC also affects aggressive reactions (Baron & Richardson, 1994). Because internals see themselves as causal agents, they engage in behavior to subvert harm, whereas if externals aggress, they do so to vent their hostility. In this way, internals aggress to control the situation directly, whereas external aggress to express anger.
Research provides support for these contentions (e.g., Blass, 1991; Buss, 1961; Dengerink, O’Leary, & Kasner, 1975; Feshbach, 1984).