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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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Informal status. Informal status is based on the set of relationships individuals build in organizations (Brass & Burkhardt, 1993). The network individuals hold with others organizational members provides for a source of power, particularly if they have the capacity to provide access to or exclusion from certain interpersonal relationships (Molm & Cook, 1995).

This is important because individuals require a sense of belonging and social acceptance (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Those involved with social cliques or networks within organizations are also perceived by others to hold more informal power and therefore can influence others (Brass & Burkhardt, 1993). These arguments suggest that those with strong informal networks will hold a greater sense of status within the organization.

Informal status provides a sense of comfort to handle situations head on. Findings from Thau, Aquino, and Wittek (2004) support this contention; specifically, individuals’ informal status heightened revenge reactions such that the greater the informal status, the more likely individuals engaged in retaliatory acts toward the harmdoer, regardless of the level of relative or absolute hierarchical status of the victim. These results imply that victims of high informal status feel a greater ability to deal with the situation directly. Thus, victims of aggression may feel safe and empowered to either retaliate against the harmdoer or seek help from others. In this way, victims with strong network ties (or a high degree of informal status) feel their relational ties safeguard them from any future punishments from the harmdoer. Further, due to the reliance on network members, victims would be less likely to behave in ways that may damage relationships with others. Therefore, they would be less likely to direct their aggression toward fellow coworkers (or displace aggression). Further, because of the “surface” power provided them through network ties, victims with informal power would also be less likely to feel as though the situation was out of their control and thus, less likely to withdraw from the situation.

Therefore, I predict:

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

Organization Climate. Climate represents employees’ shared understandings and experiences of organizational events. An organization’s climate is the molar prescriptions of organizational policies, practices, and procedures, both formal and informal (Reichers & Schneider, 1990). Organizations hold many climate types (e.g., work-family climate, Kossek, Colquitt, & Noe, 2001; justice climate, Liao & Rupp, 2005; ethical climate, Victor & Cullen, 1988, to name a few). However, an organization’s climate of silence is particularly relevant to how individuals react to aggression, and therefore will be the focus here.

Morrison and Milliken (2000) argue that some organizations foster a “climate of silence,” which involves the “widely shared perceptions among employees that speaking up about problems or issues is futile and/or dangerous” (708). They contend a climate of silence stems from management practices and beliefs, and in particular, managements’ unwillingness to hear feedback from lower level employees. They believe managers often feel threatened by negative feedback because it reflects poorly on them (Argyris & Schon, 1978). Research shows that feedback from lower level subordinates is usually negative (Illgen, Fischer, & Taylor, 1979). As a result, managers often avoid information that might suggest weakness in their abilities.

Managers who are already threatened by subordinate feedback (Korsgaard, Roberson, & Rymph,

1998) may feel any direct action an employee makes to remedy a situation is an attack on management’s ability to control its employees and its credibility. These managers believe management is supposed to know what’s best for their employees and is able to identify problem areas (and people). Glauser (1984) argued that these types of beliefs are pervasive—specifically, the manager’s role is to direct and control while subordinates are supposed to follow without question. Morrison and Milliken (2000) concede that not all organizations maintain the same degree of silence; however, those that do stymie upward feedback (Ashford, Rothbard, Piderit, & Dutton, 1998; Dutton, Ashford, O’Neill, Hayes, & Wierba, 1997).

In short, organizations that embrace a climate of silence inhibit employees from speaking out about organizational problems (like acts of aggression) because employees anticipate negative consequences for doing so (e.g., being labeled, viewed negatively, punished) or because they believe speaking out is futile and will make no difference (Milliken, Morrison, & Hewlin, 2003). These arguments suggest that a climate of silence inhibits an employee’s ability to voice concerns or seek constructive solutions to acts of perceived aggression. Therefore, victims of aggression would be less likely to engage in constructive problem-solving behaviors when the organization espouses a climate of silence.

Drawing from reactance principles (Brehm, 1966), Morrison and Milliken (2000) contend that a climate of silences also heightens feelings that the situation is out of the victim’s control.





Because victims are unable to “speak out,” they feel an inability to handle the situation directly either through retaliation or constructive problem-solving. Either option suggests that negative consequences will befall the victim. Consistent with these arguments, qualitative findings by Vakola and Bourades (2005) found that an organization’s climate of silence facilitated employees’ silence, and negatively influenced employees’ job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

When employees are unable to change the objective conditions of the situation, control theory suggests employees may engage in other behaviors in order to regain a sense of personal control (Rothbaum et al., 1982); specifically withdrawal, whereby victims attempt to change their own behaviors to accommodate an otherwise obstreperous situation. Further, consistent with the frustration-aggression hypothesis (Dollard et al., 1939), victims’ inability to retaliate against the source of the harm would thereby intensify the need to displace their aggression.

Therefore, I predict:

Proposition 5: The greater the climate of silence within the organization, 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.

The Influence of Individual Factors House, Shane and Herold (1996) contend that “certain dispositions do not even manifest themselves unless certain situational cues make them salient” (218). This suggests strong situations, like aggression, bring to the surface certain personality characteristics in victims, which may influence reactions. Indeed, research suggests personality traits influence both nonaggressive and aggressive reactions (e.g., Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Baron & Richardson, 1994; Perrowé & Spector, 2002). I address locus of control, self-esteem, socioemotional needs, negative affect, trait anger, type A behavior pattern, and perceived powerlessness, as aggression research has identified these specific individual factors as influencing reactions.

Locus of Control (LOC). LOC is the generalized expectation one has in terms of their level of control of rewards and punishments (Rotter, 1966). Individuals high on LOC have an “internal” orientation and believe that control is based on one’s motivation, abilities and other factors of the self. Individuals low on LOC have an “external” orientation, and believe that control is based on luck, fate, or some other external consequence.

Research on LOC suggests individuals’ control beliefs allow them to effectively cope (or not) with stressful situations (Anderson, 1977; Kobasa, Maddi, & Kahn, 1982). In terms of coping, internals generally feel more readily able to influence aversive situations, and, therefore, engage in behaviors to directly reduce the stress. Essentially, internals see themselves as “causal agents,” who are able to directly change situations (Fiske & Taylor, 1984). For example, in terms of interpersonal conflicts, Hahn (2000) reported that internals were more apt to seek problem-focused behaviors than externals. In contrast, externals have the tendency to avoid stressful situations because they believe their fate has been largely defined by outside forces.

Greenberger and Strasser (1991) argue that externals most likely see fewer opportunities to control the situation, which promotes feelings of helplessness. Hence, externals become highly frustrated in terms of aversive and stressful situations.

In terms of perceived aggression, research suggests that should an internal respond to aggression with aggression, they are more likely to act in ways to subvert the harm directly (Baron & Richardson, 1994). In contrast, when externals aggress, they do so for the purpose of expressing their hostility and anger, but not at the source of the stress (Blass, 1991; Buss, 1961;

Dengerink, O’Leary, & Kasner, 1975; Feshbach, 1984). Given the suggested patterns of LOC, internals seem better able to deal with the source of aggression directly (i.e., constructive problem-solving and retaliatory aggression). Externals, with their fatalistic approach, would feel unable to change objective conditions and therefore react toward other sources (i.e., displaced

aggression and withdrawal). Thus, I predict:

Proposition 6: The greater the degree of locus of control of a victim (internal orientation), the more likely the victim will engage in retaliatory aggression and constructive problem-solving, and the less likely the victim will engage in displaced aggression and withdrawal.

Self-Esteem. Self-esteem is an individual’s favorable global evaluation of himself or herself (e.g., intelligence, worth, value). The traditional perspective of self-esteem states that high levels produce beneficial consequences, whereas low levels produce more dysfunctional consequences (Anderson, 1994). Specifically, individuals with low self-esteem act out more aggressively (Oates & Forrest, 1985) in order to enhance their self-perceptions by denigrating others (Toch, 1993). However, much of the research on aggression suggests that individuals high in self-esteem are more inclined to act out aggressively (see Baumeister & Boden, 1998).

The basis for those authors’ arguments is that although higher levels of self-esteem increase confidence, it also infers other characteristics, such as superiority, pride, arrogance, narcissism (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). Not surprisingly, because high self-esteem individuals hold themselves in a very favorable light, they behave quite arrogantly, conceitedly, and egotistically (Baumeister & Boden, 1998). Research suggests that individuals with high self-esteem who are provoked engage in irrational and problematic behavior because provocation implies a questioning of their self-assessments. In contrast, individuals with low self-esteem are more uncertain (Baumeister, 1995; Campbell & Lavalle, 1993) and have a greater concern for how others see them (Heatherton & Polivy, 1991). As a result, low self-esteem tends to result in more conservative reactions (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1993).

Researchers argue that individuals with high self-esteem have the tendency to target reactions directly against individuals who subvert or otherwise undermine their own selfperceptions. They do so to validate their self-perceptions, which have been called into question by the provoker (e.g., Berkowitz, 1978; Katz, 1988; Toch, 1993). This reaction is due to threatened egotism, where favorable views of oneself are disputed or in some other way the harmdoer is calling into question the victim’s self-assessment (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). In short, high self-esteem individuals react aggressively whenever victims believe their favorable self-assessments are being “questioned, contradicted, impugned, mocked, challenged, or otherwise put in jeopardy” (Baumeister et al., 1996: 8).

Yet, high self-esteem does not always influence retaliatory reactions. Research also suggests individuals with high self-esteem are more likely to engage in voice (e.g., Avery, 2003;

LePine & VanDyne, 1998). For example, individuals with high self-esteem have been shown to be more willing to stand up to authorities and complain (Staw & Boettger, 1990; Van Dyne et al., 1995). Further, and of particularly interest here, Miceli and colleagues (Miceli & Near, 1992;

Near & Miceli, 1985, 1987) suggested that in the context of whistle-blowing (i.e., situations under which individuals are threatened by out-of-line behavior—like aggression), individuals with high self-esteem try to improve the situation through proactive means. In contrast, the results suggest that individuals with low self-esteem have the tendency to withdraw from these controversial situations.

The above literature review suggests that individuals with high self-esteem are more likely to react directly to aggression. Thus, I believe that individuals high in self-esteem will be more likely to engage in retaliatory aggression and constructive problem-solving in order to redeem their self-perceptions. However, because victims with low self-esteem already do not think highly of themselves, they are more likely to think the harmdoer’s actions and appraisals are correct. Thus, even if they become angry or hostile, they are less likely to react directly toward the source and more likely to react toward others (i.e., displaced aggression and

withdrawal). Therefore, I predict:

Proposition 7: The greater the degree of self-esteem of a victim, the more likely the victim will engage in retaliatory aggression and constructive problem-solving, and the less likely the victim will engage in displaced aggression and withdrawal.



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