Employee retaliation against abusive bosses stems from lack of self-control and likelihood of getting away with it, study finds
January 21, 2014
For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170,
According to widely cited research, about three fourths of
employees engage in at least one aggressive act against a
supervisor in the course of a year, ranging from fomenting gossip
to playing a mean prank to making an obscene gesture. Given the
possible hazards of such deeds, even in response to abusive
supervisor behavior, what accounts for such a high incidence?
A new study suggests an explanation: subordinates commonly count
on getting away with it.
The research in the February issue of
the Academy of Management
Journal finds that employee retaliation
against abusive bosses occurs disproportionately in situations
where the supervisor lacks the means to punish an aggressing
The study seeks to tease out the role of the two elements that
prior research suggests are essential to explaining subordinate
retaliation against abusive supervisors -- the extent of the
supervisor's coercive power and of the subordinate's self-control.
It finds that the combination of low supervisor coercive power and
low employee self-control vastly increases the likelihood of
retaliation over any combination of the two in which one or both
are high -- for example, high coercive power, low self-control or
high coercive power, high self-control.
The intricate relationship between the two emerges in two
observations. On the one hand, the authors write that "the issue of
whether or not subordinates retaliate against an abusive supervisor
is ultimately one of self-control." On the other hand, they go on
to note that self-control is not necessarily a permanent character
strength. As the authors put it, "our findings [demonstrate] that
the absence of self-control capacity or resources need not
necessarily lead individuals to behave aggressively in response to
abusive supervision. Given the proper incentives (i.e., perceiving
potential punishment from supervisors), individuals appear to be
quite capable of mobilizing their inner resources to override their
natural inclination to directly harm an abusive supervisor."
Comments Huiwen Lian, who did much of the research for the study
as a doctoral candidate at the University of Waterloo in Canada,
"Retaliating against an abusive boss sounds brave and intrepid even
to the point of folly, but the more one analyzes it, the less
courageous and foolish it turns out to be. There's a great
difference between retaliating against a powerful boss who can do
you a lot of harm and a boss who cannot -- and cases of the latter
are much more common than instances of the former."
Now affiliated with the Hong Kong University of Science and
Technology, Prof. Lian shares authorship of the paper with Douglas
J. Brown, Lindie H. Liang, and Rachel Morrison of the University of
Waterloo; D. Lance Ferris of Pennsylvania State University; and
Lisa M. Keeping of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada.
The study's findings emerge from surveys of some 384 employees
in a wide variety of industries, with questions including 1) how
frequently they were subject to one or more forms of abuse from
supervisors, such as being ridiculed, getting the silent treatment,
or being lied to; 2) the extent of supervisors' coercive power (for
example, to make work difficult for employees or assign them to
undesirable jobs); 3) the extent of supervisors' reward power (such
as bestowing raises); 4) how frequently they resorted to some form
of aggression against supervisors; and 5) participants' capacity
for self-control (for example, whether they found it difficult to
plan ahead or how quickly they would give up on a difficult task or
their likelihood of yielding to temptation).
Findings include the following:
■ The likelihood of subordinate aggression against
abusive supervisors is considerably greater for cases characterized
by low supervisor coercive power combined with low employee
self-control than it is for other combinations of the two.
■ Supervisor coercive power is a far more effective
inhibitor of subordinate aggression than supervisor reward power.
In the words of the study, "Negative information (such as
punishment) tends to be more impactful than positive information
(such as rewards). Generally referred to as the principle that 'bad
is stronger than good,' this effect...is thought to arise due to
evolutionary pressure, such that organisms are more likely to
survive if they are attuned to 'bad things.' "
■ Self-control capacity is effective in two distinct
ways: it not only keeps subordinates' hostility to supervisors from
generating outright acts of aggression but also diminishes the
amount of hostility that subordinates actually feel. In the words
of the study, "By reappraising the situation in favor of a
nonhostile interpretation or deploying attention away from
anger-provoking stimuli or thoughts, individuals may mitigate the
extent to which they experience negative emotions."
In conclusion, the authors propose that companies screen job
applicants for self-control at both the supervisory and subordinate
levels and that they provide training in it for employees at both
levels. At the same time, organizations should also "create
contexts which maximize individual motivation to self-control. In
particular, our findings suggest that punishment or perceived
potential negative consequences can be particularly effective at
mitigating aggressive behaviors directed toward supervisors."
The paper, "Abusive Supervision and Retaliation: A Self-Control
Framework," is in the February/March issue of
the Academy of Management
Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is
published every other month by the Academy, which, with about
19,000 members in 110 countries, is the largest organization in the
world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's
other publications are The Academy of Management Review,
The Academy of Management Perspectives,
and Academy of Management Learning and Education.