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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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This review suggests that fear of retaliation inhibits reactions toward the source of the harm and strengthens reactions against other targets. In particular, individuals who fear retaliation from the harmdoer are more likely to engage in behaviors not targeted at the source (e.g., displaced aggression and withdrawal), as direct reactions (whether aggressive or nonaggressive) heighten fears of being caught and subjected to further acts of aggression by the harmdoer. Thus, research suggests that victims of aggression would be less likely to engage in

behaviors targeted toward the harmdoer (e.g., retaliatory aggression and constructive problemsolving), particularly when they fear of retaliation from the harmdoer. Therefore, I propose:

Proposition 1: The greater the fear of retaliation a victim has with the source of aggression, the more likely the victim will engage in displaced aggression and withdrawal, and the less likely the victim will engage in retaliatory aggression and constructive problem-solving.

Aggressive Modeling. According to social learning theory (Bandura, 1983, 2001;

Mischel, 1973, 1999), individuals develop aggressive patterns of behavior through learned experiences, whether through observation or direct experience. Vicarious learning occurs through the observation of social models (e.g., parents, supervisors). The concept of social modeling is particularly relevant to aggressive tendencies. A main tenant of social learning theory is that learned tendencies guide behaviors. However, not all learned tendencies are enacted, meaning sometimes individuals show restraint in their reactions, depending on the situation. Therefore, individuals enact learned tendencies that are also supported in their environment (Bandura, 1983). When aggression is supported at work, victims feel more inclined to engage aggression themselves because they feel it is appropriate behavior. Thus, by observing aggressive behaviors of other organizational members, individuals learn that aggressive reactions are encouraged and constitute an appropriate response to perceived aggression.

According to social information processing theory, “one can learn more about individual behavior by studying the information and social environment within which the behavior occurs and to which it adapts” (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978: 226). Specifically, social information processing theory suggests that individuals develop expectations about appropriate behavior by assessing the immediate environment. Building from these principles, O’Reilly and Caldwell (1985) argue that certain attitudes and behaviors perceived in the environment communicate not only “the way things should be done” but also “the way things ought to be done.” Stated differently, observing employees’ behavior lets employees know which behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate at work, and more so than the organization’s rules and regulations.

Thus, work environments that provide information that aggression is supported (e.g., supervisors and coworkers actively engage in aggression themselves) may influence victims’ aggressive reactions.

Indeed, research provides support for the influence of social learning theory and social information processing theory with workplace aggression. For example, Robinson and O’LearyKelly (1998) explored the extent to which an individual’s work group influenced antisocial behavior, and found that antisocial behavior exhibited by group members significantly influenced an individual group member’s antisocial behavior. Similarly, Aquino and Douglas (2003) found that high-status employees who were frequently exposed to aggressive modeling engaged in higher levels of antisocial behavior than employees in low-status positions, or when compared to high-status employees who were exposed to low levels of aggressive modeling.

They argue that aggressive models set strong norms for employees, which guide behaviors.

Based on these arguments, I believe that individuals who perceive aggressive modeling within the workplace will be more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors in reaction to perceived aggression (retaliatory aggression and displaced aggression), and less likely to engage

in non-aggressive reactions (constructive problem-solving and withdrawal). Therefore, I predict:

Proposition 2: The greater the presence of aggressive models within the workplace, the more likely the victim will engage in retaliatory aggression and displaced aggression, and the less likely the victim will engage in constructive problem-solving and withdrawal.

An Apology. An apology conveys an explanation of behavior, and has been found to be a powerful deterrent to interpersonal conflict (Darby & Schlenker, 1982; Schwartz, Kane, Joseph, & Tedeschi, 1978; Takaku, 2000), and particularly to aggression (Ohbuchi, Kameda, & Agarie, 1989). Tedeschi and Norman (1985) argue that an apology mitigates aggression because the harmdoer is able to successfully remove the negative evaluation of the offense. According to correspondent inference theory (Jones & Davis, 1965), an apology lessens perceptions that the offensive act was intentional and most likely not due to some underlying trait of the offender. As a consequence, the victim no longer attributes the negative act to the harmdoer, allowing for interpersonal forgiveness (Takaku, 2001).





Likewise, Ohbuchi et al. (1989) found that an apology conveys one of the following messages to a victim: (a) reduction of the victim’s responsibility (i.e., harmdoer admits responsibility for the transgression), (b) respect for the victim, (c) denial of maliciousness (i.e., harmdoer is not so bad after all), and/or (d) restoration of social justice (i.e., harmdoer has accepted the disgrace of his/her actions or is remorseful and promises not to commit the action in the future). Consequently, an apology inhibits negative reactions to a personal offense. For example, Ohbuchi et al. (1989) found that victims who received an apology were less likely to engage in aggression, regardless of the strength of the offense. Further, an apology improved the victim’s impression of the harmdoer. The results of their study suggest an apology decreases the severity of the offense and the victim’s cognitive appraisal of the harmdoer.

Theorists have also argued that an apology also evokes affective reactions which, in turn, influence more positive behavioral intentions (Weiner, 1986, 1995). Accordingly, victims who receive an apology make benevolent attributions about the harmdoer, meaning they hold the harmdoer less responsible for the transgression, which then promotes benevolent affective reactions. Ohbuchi et al. (1989) found support for this contention. In addition to lessening aggressive reactions and improving perceptions of the harmdoer, they found that an apology increased victims’ affect (lessening anger and unpleasant feelings). They argued that the act of apologizing mitigated negative emotional reactions to personal attacks.

I believe these results suggest that victims who receive an apology from the harmdoer will feel less inclined to engage in either dysfunctional or constructive problem-solving behaviors. Should victims receive an apology from the harmdoer, they would be less likely to attribute the act as intentionally harmful, and therefore feel little need to directly change the situation. As a result, apologizing would lessen the need to retaliate or engage in constructive problem-solving. Further, because an apology increases positive emotions and lessens hostility and anger, victims would be less likely to strike out against others by way of displaced aggression. Lastly, the benevolent attributions and affect that are produced from the apology would increase more positive behavioral intentions, thereby lessening victims’ needs to change

their own behavior to adapt to the situation (i.e., withdrawal). Therefore, I predict:

Proposition 3: The presence of an apology will lessen the victim’s reactions of retaliatory aggression, displaced aggression, constructive problem-solving and

–  –  –

Victim Status. Individuals’ status in an organization often communicates a certain level of power; those in higher level positions often are able to modify others’ circumstances by providing or withholding valued resources or administering punishments (Emerson, 1962;

Kipnis, 1972). Research suggests three types of status communicate an individual’s ability to influence others: relative hierarchical status, absolute hierarchical status, and informal status.

Relative hierarchical status is the victim’s hierarchical position relative to the harmdoer.

Absolute hierarchical status is the victim’s hierarchical position within the entire organization, regardless of the harmdoer’s status (Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2001; Bies & Tripp, 1996). Informal status involves the dependencies the victim generates through work relationships (Brass & Burkhardt, 1993). Research investigating the nature of status and workplace revenge suggests status is an important determinant of reactions to aggression. I explore this below.

Relative hierarchical status. Aquino and colleagues (Aquino & Douglas, 2003; Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2001, in press; Thau, Aquino, & Wittek, 2004) argue that because status reflects a victim’s ability to reward or punish, those in higher status positions in comparison to the harmdoer are provided a sense of comfort. For example, a supervisor might feel less threatened by a subordinate who is aggressive. Yet, just because a victim of higher status feels more secure and powerful doesn’t necessarily mean that that person will not seek to control the situation. The issue falls squarely as a desire to “save face,” or maintain a certain level of respect, given their social position as compared to the harmdoer. Consequently, the victim of greater status may feel it necessary to restore and re-establish “face” by retaliating against the harmdoer (Brehm, 1966;

Lawler & Yoon, 1993). Indeed, research has shown victims of higher status than the source of the mistreatment seek revenge against their offender (e.g., Aquino et al., 2001, in press; Kim, Smith, & Brigham, 1998).

In contrast, victims who are of lesser status than the harmdoer may be inhibited from retaliating (Aquino et al., 2001; Bies et al., 1997; Kim et al., 1998). Again, status innately relays information about how much power one has over another. Those of lesser status have no formal power to exert resources and punishments, which means they are poorly positioned to retaliate.

As a result, low status victims may try to maintain their relationship with the higher status offender (Aquino et al., in press). Aquino et al. (in press) argue that low status victims consequently try to engage in pro-social coping activities, like forgiveness and reconciliation.

Hence, low status victims have no other alternative but to engage in more constructive behaviors with the harmdoer (i.e., constructive problem-solving).

Further and consistent with the frustration-aggression hypotheses (Dollard et al., 1939), because lower status victims are unable to retaliate against the harmdoer, they would be more likely to displace their aggression on others (Dollard et al., 1939). A qualitative study by Bies and Tripp (1996) supports this contention. Respondents who worked with a “tyrannical boss” felt retaliation was too precarious, and instead engaged in other forms of aggression (e.g., unauthorized use of company resources). Further, according to theories of control (Rothbaum et al., 1982), lower status victims may seek to regain a sense of personal control by adapting their own behavior. Results from Bies and Tripp’s (1996) study also support this notion, as victims who worked with a tyrannical boss decided to withhold help, support and effort, worked less or quite (i.e., withdrawal).

–  –  –

Proposition 4(a): The greater the hierarchical status of the victim relative to the harmdoer, the more likely the victim will engage in retaliatory aggression, and the less likely the victim will engage in constructive problem-solving, displaced aggression, and

–  –  –

Absolute hierarchical status. Absolute hierarchical status imposes normative constraints on behavior (Hogan & Emler, 1981; Tripp & Bies, 1997). Hogan and Emler (1981) argue that those in high-status positions must maintain a respectable facade and are more cognizant of how they are perceived by others. Thus, engaging in aggressive behaviors or behaviors that imply incompetence (i.e., withdrawal) are less likely. These arguments are also consistent with Bies and Tripp (1997), who found individuals in higher-status positions viewed revenge as “unprofessional.” Acts of aggression send a message to others that the victim could not handle the situation professionally; also, aggression goes “against the grain” of how individuals in higher positions should behave. These arguments suggest that victims who are in high status positions will seek a more proactive and direct solution to the problem (i.e., constructive problem-solving), and avoid behaviors that would infer unprofessionalism (i.e., retaliatory aggression and displaced aggression) or incompetence (i.e., withdrawal).

In contrast, victims in low status positions within the organization are more likely to engage in more dysfunctional behaviors (e.g., retaliation, displaced aggression and withdrawal).

Aquino et al. (in press) argue that low status victims lack symbolic and self-affirming resources (e.g., prestigious titles, pay, autonomy, responsibility), and because of this, they are more sensitive to offenses, and in particular to personal attacks of aggression. Research provides support for these arguments. Aquino et al. (2001) found that victims in lower status positions sought revenge more often. Further, Aquino and Douglas (2002) found that lower status victims engaged in more antisocial behaviors than victims higher in absolute status.

–  –  –

Proposition 4(b): The greater the absolute status of the victim, the more likely the victim will engage in constructive problem-solving, and the less likely the victim will engage in retaliatory aggression, displaced aggression, and withdrawal.



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