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


Topic: Human Resource Management
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (JUL 2012)
Article: Employees’ Behavioral Reactions to Supervisor Aggression:
An Examination of Individual and Situational Factors
Authors: M. Mitchell, M. Ambrose
Reviewed By: Chrystal Ensey

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 their 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). So, what factors come into play that causes an employee to have a constructive or deconstructive reaction to their boss’ aggressive behaviors?

The current article explores both individual (locus of control) and situational (fear of retaliation and behavioral modeling) factors in employees’ reactions to supervisor aggression. Locus of control involves the extent employees believe 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 proved to be a successful prevention to destructive reactions. These findings promote a holistic view of employees’ reactions to aggressive bosses by taking into account both the individual and situation-specific factors; it is the involvement of both these factors that will ultimately shape how an employee will react.

As practitioners this article illustrates the need to identify employees’ individual capabilities to select constructive reactions, provide resources and support to employees for maximizing their constructive options, and to provide an organizational culture that values a respectful workplace with clear policies and procedures to protect employees from aggressive behaviors.

Mitchell, M. S., & Ambrose, M. L. (2012, July 30). Employees’ Behavioral Reactions to
Supervisor Aggression: An Examination of Individual and Situational Factors. Journal of
Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029452

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management




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