«UNDERSTANDING EMPLOYEES’ BEHAVIORAL REACTIONS TO AGGRESSION IN ORGANIZATIONS by MARIE S. MITCHELL B.S., George Mason University, 1993 M.A.H.R., ...»
Buss (1961) also discusses direction and aggression. He defined direct aggression as behavior where the victim seeks to harm the provoking source, and indirect aggression as behavior where the victim seeks to harm something or someone that the provoking source values. Buss argued that indirect forms of aggression allow the victim to react with a sense of safety from recourse. That is, indirect aggression is difficult at best to pin-point, which allows the victim to aggress without being identified. Nevertheless, indirect aggression, as described by Buss, is aggression that is not physically targeted at the source of the harm, whereas direct aggression is specifically and physically targeted toward the source of the harm.
Theories of personal control also discuss directionality. Accordingly, when individuals feel threatened, they seek to regain control (deCharms, 1968), called “psychological reactance” (Brehm, 1966; Wortman & Brehm, 1975). Reactance involves individuals seeking to change the objective conditions of the situation. However, not all situations can be changed, which may promote feelings of helplessness (Seligman, 1975). Rothbaum, Weisz, and Synder (1982) argue that even when individuals feel helpless, they do not abandon the desire to regain control;
instead, reactance is a two-stage process. Initially, individuals attempt to directly modify objective conditions. However, when direct control is either not possible or unsuccessful, individuals modify their own behavior to suit the prevailing conditions (e.g., withdrawal). These secondary behaviors are necessary to regain a homeostatic level of personal control (or equilibrium) so that individuals can better function within their environment.
Workplace aggression research provides evidence of direct attempts to harm the source of the perceived aggression (e.g., Cortina & Magley, 2003; Mitchell & Ambrose, 2004b; Jones, 2003, 2004). Although specific investigations of displaced aggression are rare within workplace aggression research, studies that have investigated forms of displaced aggression suggest individuals do react toward targets that are not the source of their hostilities (e.g., Aquino & Douglas, 2003; Bennett, 1998; Fox & Spector, 1999; Mitchell & Ambrose, 2004b). Further, a recent meta-analysis on psychology experiments found displaced aggression to be a consistent and robust response to provocation when respondents were unable to retaliate toward the provoker directly (see Marcus-Newhall, Pedersen, Carlson, & Miller, 2000).
Thus, this review suggests individuals may respond directly toward the source of the perceived aggression or may target their response at a different target. Therefore, reactions may be directed toward the source of the perceived harm or toward someone or something not perceived to be the source of the harm. Within the context of the typology, I believe these two categories fall on a continuum, whereby at the extreme points you see the most active forms of reactions toward the source of the harm (e.g., assaulting or reconciling with the source) and reactions toward someone or something not the source of the harm (e.g., assaulting someone other than the source or leaving the organization).
Categories of Behavioral Reactions to Aggression The two dimensions produce four basic categories of behaviors: (1) aggression/behavior directed toward the source, (2) aggression/behavior not directed toward the source, (3) nonaggression/behavior directed toward the source, and (4) non-aggression/behavior not directed toward the source. I believe these four categories are best described as retaliatory aggression (aggression/behavior directed toward the source), displaced aggression (aggression/behavior not directed toward the source), constructive problem-solving (non-aggression/behavior directed toward the source), and withdrawal (non-aggression/behavior not directed toward the source).
Figure 2 presents the typology with these categories of behavior. Each is described in more detail below.
Retaliatory aggression is behavior that intends to inflict harm on the person perceived to be responsible for the harm. The purpose of retaliation is to “even the score” or “get back at” the transgressor (Skarlicki & Folger, 2005). According to Berkowitz (1989), retaliatory aggression is a fight response to the anger initiated by the transgression. By retaliating, victims to aggression directly and intentionally harm the perceived harmdoer. Retaliatory aggression may involve behaviors directed at the target, such as assault or obscene gestures, or less severe behaviors, such as gossiping about the harmdoer where the primary intent is to cause harm to the harmdoer (Buss, 1961). Thus, retaliatory aggression constitutes behavior that intends to inflict harm (i.e., aggression) directly toward the source of the perceived aggression (i.e., the behavior is directed toward the source).
Displaced aggression is behavior that intends to inflict harm on a person or object not the source of the perceived harm (Dollard et al., 1939). As stated before, displaced aggression often occurs because the individual is unable to retaliate against the harmdoer. The victim essentially redirects their hostilities (or aggressive reactions) onto other, more available targets. Thus, the victim is intentionally harming someone or something other than the harmdoer. Thus, displaced aggression involves acts of intentional harm directed toward targets that are not the source of the harm (i.e., toward other people (assault, threats) or property (e.g., theft, property damage)).
Thus, displaced aggression constitutes behavior that intends to inflict harm (i.e., aggression) at a target that is not the source of the harm (i.e., the behavior is not directed toward the source).
Constructive problem-solving is behavior that seeks to improve the situation in a positive manner. Problem-solving is defined as any attempt to effectively solve specific problems that are encountered (D’Zurilla, Nezu, & Maydeu-Olivares, 2004). However, not all problem-solving activities can be seen as “constructive.” Constructive actions seek to change objective conditions to better the situation for the victim without intentionally harming the source of the perceived aggression. Therefore, in the context of reactions to perceived aggression, constructive problemsolving is behavior that seeks to resolve or stop the perceived aggression without intentionally harming the source. In the stress literature, constructive problem-solving is similar to the problem-focused coping concept of “reversals” (Thoits, 1994). Reversals attempt to convert a negative situation into a positive one or, at least, minimize the negative one. Another similar concept is “voice,” whereby individuals feel empowered to speak out and remedy the problem (Farrell, 1983; Rusbult, Farrell, Rogers, & Mainous, 1988; Lind & Tyler, 1988; Tyler, 1987).
Thus, constructive problem-solving is behavior that directly seeks to address the perceived aggression (i.e., the behavior is directed toward the source) absent the intent to inflict harm (i.e., non-aggression).
Withdrawal is behavior that places physical or psychological distance between the victim and the source of the aggression (Sears, 1941). In the stress literature, withdrawal is similar to problem-focused coping behaviors of “extrication,” where individuals attempt to remove themselves from a negative situation (Thoits, 1994). Within the organizational literature, two types of withdrawal behaviors have generally been the focus of research: work and job withdrawal. Work withdrawal involves behaviors to avoid aspects of the work role (e.g., avoiding particular tasks, increasing errors, reduced interest), whereas job withdrawal involves exiting the job in some way (e.g., turnover, transfers, absenteeism, chronic tardiness; Hanisch & Hulin, 1991). When individuals engage in withdrawal, they adjust their own behavior without removing or directly addressing the source of the perceived aggression. Instead, no changes are made to the actual objective conditions. Further, withdrawal is not behavior that intends to inflict harm and, therefore, it does not constitute aggression. Rather, withdrawal behaviors seek to adapt one’s own behaviors to the aggression (i.e., the behavior is not directed toward the source), absent the intent to inflict harm (i.e., non-aggression).
Based on this typology, I suggest there is a wide range of reactions to aggression that can be described by one of the four categories presented in the typology. Each of the four behaviors is based on the two primary dimension descriptors: the form of the behavior (aggression or nonaggression) and the direction of the behavior (behavior directed at the source or behavior not at the source).
So far, I have described how individuals process aggression, as well as identified categories of likely responses to such attacks. I now address the issue of which factors influence those reactions (Figure 3). The model is based on the process by which individuals understand aggressive events (explained in Figure 1). To reiterate, individuals process aggression through a complex sequence of emotions, biological factors, and cognitions. Ultimately, these processes provide the basis for a behavioral decision. Which response individuals choose to engage in, therefore, is dependent upon situational and individual factors influencing decision-making processes. Thus, in order to understand which reactions individuals decide to engage in, it is important to identify relevant situational and individual factors that influence responses.
Therefore, the model presented identifies various factors that influence the decision-making process, which then result in a particular reaction (i.e., with retaliatory aggression, displaced aggression, constructive problem-solving or withdrawal).
For conceptual clarity, the victim refers to the individual whose reaction is the focus of concern, and the individual who is the recipient of the aggression. The harmdoer is the individual who targeted aggression toward the victim. Lastly, the target is the person to whom the victim directs the reaction as a consequence of aggression.
The Influence of Situational Factors The first set of variables that I propose affect individuals’ reactions to aggression are situational factors. Based primarily on social psychology and workplace aggression literatures, I explore situational factors that researchers have identified to influence reactions to provoking or threatening situations. Specifically, I consider fear of retaliation, aggressive modeling, an apology, the victim’s status, and the organization’s climate.
Fear of Retaliation. Research indicates that fear of retaliation from the provoking source strongly influences individuals’ responses to aggression. A basic tenant of Dollard et al.’s (1939) aggression theory is that fear of future punishments or retaliation deters retaliation and promotes displaced aggression. They argued 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” (1939: 33). Victims essentially understand that aggressing toward the harmdoer may promote further attacks against them. This understanding stems from what victims have already learned or experienced. Victims rely on learned inhibitions to understand and assess potential consequences of their own behavior (whether through direct experience or vicarious learning) (Bandura, 1983; Berkowitz, 1983, 1989). Thus, because of what is expected and learned from the past, dominant aggressive reactions may be suppressed. Nevertheless, individuals differ in what they know, meaning reactions may vary.
Indeed, aggression research suggests fear of retaliation plays an important role in a victim’s decision to engage in retaliation. Research provides strong evidence that fear of retaliation heightens displaced aggression and inhibits retaliatory aggression. A recent metaanalysis of psychology experiments of displaced aggression shows that displaced aggression is a robust reaction when individuals feared retaliation from the harmdoer (Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000, for a review). Further, in the context of workplace aggression, Fox and Spector (1999) found that fear of retaliation was the strongest predictor of counterproductive workplace behavior (CWB), and those who feared retaliation engaged in more incidents of CWBs targeted to the organization than those targeted toward a specific person (the harmdoer).
Research investigating sexual harassment also demonstrates the effects of fear of retaliation. Studies have demonstrated that the greater the felt victimization, the more likely the respondent feared retaliation from the harmdoer (Holgate, 1989; Junger, 1987). This research consistently shows fear of retaliation strongly influences whether or not employees report harassment. (See Koss, Goodman et al., 1994 for review.) Likewise, Fitzgerald and colleagues (Fitzgerald, 1993; Fitzgerald & Ormerod, 1993; Hesson-McInnis & Fitzgerald, 1992) found that fear of retaliation was the main reason victims did not report their harasser. Further, sexual harassment research also suggests fear of retaliation influences withdrawal behaviors. Research has shown that individuals who are harassed who also fear retaliation feel as though nothing can be done to change the situation, which results in greater incidents of absenteeism and turnover (Allen & Erikson, 1989; Koss, Goodman et al., 1994).
In the context of whistleblowing, Near and Miceli (1996) argue that individuals generally only report incidents that constitute whistleblowing if there is a “reasonable supposition of success,” meaning that something can be done and they will not be retaliated upon for their actions. In contrast, when individuals do not believe there is a reasonable supposition of success (success is not supported by the organization), victims’ fears of retaliation heighten and, therefore, they are less likely to report the harmdoer. Further, their research shows that individuals who believe they will be retaliated against are far less likely to blow the whistle (Near & Miceli, 1986), suggesting fear of retaliation inhibits constructive problem-solving.