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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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Organizational researchers have spent considerable efforts investigating the nature and general consequences of aggression (see Neuman & Baron, 1998, and Bennett & Robinson, 2003 for reviews). Subsequently, we know a great deal of the types of aggressive behaviors individuals engage in at work (see Neuman & Baron, 2005). We also know a great deal of the various situational and individual factors that influence aggression in the workplace (see Baron, 2005, for a review). However, much of this research focuses on explaining why individuals engage in aggression, rather than how individuals react to the aggressive behavior of others. In short, we know little about specific reactions to aggression and what makes employees react one way or another in work settings.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (1998) reported 9 million employees were victim to aggression between the years 1992 and 1996, which is a rise in reported incidents from previous years. Given this increase, it is important to identify and predict how individuals would respond to aggression. The typology presented identifies reactions in terms of the form of behavior (aggression versus non-aggression) and the direction of the behavior (behavior directed toward the source or behavior not directed toward the source). The two dimensions produced four categories of behavioral reactions; specifically, retaliatory aggression, displaced aggression, constructive problem-solving, and withdrawal. These categories serve to provide a basis of employee reactions to aggression generally. Thus, employees may engage in a variety of reactions which may fall within the dimensions of the typology based aggressive intentions of the behavior and its direction. In no way does this suggest that individuals engage in only one type of behavior at any particular time. Indeed, individuals may engage in more than one reaction. Which behaviors they engage in depends on situational and individual influences.

The process by which individuals come to decisions on how to react to aggression is fairly complex. Various aspects of the situation and the victim’s personality influence how individuals specifically react. The model presented identifies various situational and individual factors that have received attention in the aggression literature, and are particularly relevant to the dimensions of the typology presented. Although some variables are largely out of the organization’s control (e.g., personality traits) managers may still be able to influence more positive and constructive reactions though situational characteristics of the job, the work setting and the organization more generally. In no way does the model reflect all variables that influence behaviors, but it does attempt to identify those most salient to bring about particular reactions based on aggression/non-aggression and direction of toward the source/not toward the source. Clearly though, much research is needed to identify other factors that influence reactions, particularly those that enhance constructive problem-solving and reduce retaliation, displaced aggression, and withdrawal.

Implications The typology and model presented are fairly descriptive of the entire process of reactions.

Neither really addresses the motivations for why individuals engage in one reaction or another.

For example, an individual may engage in retaliatory behaviors for instrumental reasons versus affective reasons. This is the logical next step. Aggression researchers have identified various motives of aggressive behavior. For example, hostile motives are considered impulsive, thoughtless, and anger-driven. Instrumental motives serve to achieve or secure some desirable resource (e.g., status, money; cf. Bandura, 1983; Berkowitz, 1989). Bushman and Anderson (2001; Anderson & Bushman, 2002) draw on distinctions in the law of premeditated versus impulsive actions, and argue motives can be described through the goal of the behavior.

Proximate goals serve as affect-release, whereas primary goals serve a purpose. Workplace aggression researchers can build from these ideas and from the typology to investigate the reasons behind what drives an employee to react one way or another.

Further, the propositions developed are largely presented in isolation of each variable, suggesting that each variable independently affects employees’ reactions. In the real world, we know that this is not the case. Rather, in terms of aggression the variables may also interact with each other to influence reactions (whether situational x situational, situational x personality trait, or personality trait x personality trait). Future research needs to investigate the potential for three-way interaction effects that may counter-act, heighten or lessen reactions. For example, what are the personality traits that would override fear of retaliation? What situations strengthen more proactive and constructive reactions, regardless of one’s negative individual traits (e.g., negative affect, trait anger, and TABP)?

My literature review suggests constructive reactions (i.e., constructive problem-solving) are given the least amount of attention in aggression research. Because of this, little is known about how to enhance constructive problem-solving reactions to workplace aggression. This is a necessary next step in order to help organizations develop policies, practices, and environments that embrace constructive rather than destructive reactions (e.g., retaliation, displaced aggression, and withdrawal). The stress literature has considered more problem-focused ways of coping to stressful events (e.g., Folkman, 1984; Folkman & Lazarus, 1980, 1985; Lazarus & Folkman, 1983; Thoits, 1994). Integrating ideas from the stress literature on problem-focused coping reactions (as well as other relevant literatures) may improve our understanding on constructive problem-solving by highlighting which situational and individual factors promote more constructive solutions to aggression.





Further, the theoretical model presented here speaks to only behavioral reactions to aggression. Aggression elicits more than simply behaviors; like affective responses (e.g., anger, fear), psychological reactions (e.g., depression), and physical reactions (e.g., ulcers, headaches).

It is important to understand how these reactions are related in the larger nomological network of understanding responses to aggression. For example, do certain behavioral reactions lessen negative affective, psychological or physical reactions? Do certain affective, psychological or physical reactions promote or minimize behavioral reactions? In short, although I presented a model that focuses only on behavioral reactions, I do not disregard the importance of other reactions to aggression or how they relate to behavioral reactions. Rather, I hope the typology and model presented here can provide a foundation for bridging our understanding on other types of reactions to aggression.

For practioners, I believe the typology and model provide useful information on how to better manage workplace aggression. Of central importance to managers is understanding employees’ reactions to non-violence, particularly given the rise and costs associated with these acts (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999). Theorists suggest that these non-violent acts of aggression can create a downward spiral of behaviors (Skarlicki & Folger, 2005). The typology and model presented suggests aggression can promote damaging and costly reactions (i.e., retaliatory aggression, displaced aggression and withdrawal). This reality places a large burden on managers, who are responsible for creating safe and healthy work conditions. By understanding which reactions are possible and what influences those reactions, organizations can develop methods to promote more constructive behaviors (i.e., constructive problemsolving) and avoid destructive reactions, ending the potential negative spiral.

Conclusion The typology and model presented serve as a necessary step in understanding employee reactions to aggression. It is important to identify what behaviors are likely when employees are victimized by aggression and which specific individual and situational factors influence employees’ reactions. By understanding responses to aggression, researchers can begin to address the larger issues associated with workplace aggression (e.g., outsourcing, restructuring or downsizing, salary reductions). In sum, understanding the nature of reactions to aggression can promote a better understanding of how aggression influences organizations and its members, and therefore can assist employers in developing sound prevention practices and safe environments for their employees.

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