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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 subordinate. 


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 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.

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