Fighting Back or Playing Nice: How Employees React to Bullying Bosses

It’s no secret that supervisor aggression is a serious issue facing many organizations with a wide range of consequences from retaliation and turnover to lawsuits. However, little attention has been given to the reasons why employees react differently to perceptions of supervisor aggression. While it is unlikely that all instances of supervisor aggression will completely stop within any given organization, it is possible to help shape how employees will react to those situations. Most research focuses on the deconstructive reactions (e.g., getting even with the boss or taking it out on a co-worker) with less emphasis on the constructive reactions (e.g., finding an effective solution to the problem). What factors elicit constructive or deconstructive reactions to aggressive behaviors from a boss?


The current article (Mitchell & Ambrose, 2012) explores both individual (locus of control) and situational (fear of retaliation and behavioral modeling) factors in employee reactions to supervisor aggression. Locus of control involves the extent employees believe either they (internal) or others (external) have control over events in their life. This article suggests that employees with an internal locus of control are more likely to engage in constructive reactions to supervisor aggression while fear of retaliation was appeared to be a successful prevention to destructive reactions. These findings promote a holistic view of employee reactions to aggressive bosses by taking into account both the individual and situation-specific factors; it is the involvement of both factors that ultimately shapes how employees will react.


For practitioners, this article illustrates (1) the need to identify each employee’s ability to select constructive reactions, (2) the need to provide resources and support to employees for maximizing their constructive options, and (3) the need to foster an organizational culture that values a respectful workplace with clear policies and procedures to protect employees from aggressive behavior.


Mitchell, M. S., & Ambrose, M. L. (2012). Employees’ Behavioral Reactions to Supervisor Aggression: An Examination of Individual and Situational Factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1148-1170.