Upsurge in Employee Retaliation: What Not To Do

employee prankWe just read a new study from the Academy of Management (AOM) on “subordinate retaliation against abusive supervisors” that made us say, “Ugh.”

Around 75% of employees engage in at least one aggressive act against a supervisor during a year, ranging from “fomenting gossip to playing a mean prank to making an obscene gesture.” A few researchers wanted to find out what factors motivate employees subjected to abuse to retaliate. Here are some of the findings of a research effort based on surveys of 384 employees across all industries:

  • When an abused employee perceives that some form of potential retaliation (e.g., gossip, a mean prank or even an obscene gesture) would be punished, these employees “appear to be quite capable of mobilizing their inner resources to override their natural inclination to directly harm an abusive supervisor.” Researchers recommend that supervisors flex their “coercive power” because that is a far more effective inhibitor of subordinate aggression than supervisor reward power. In other words, the researchers conclude that sticks work better than carrots in this specific – and abusive – dynamic.
  • The likelihood of subordinate retaliation against abusive supervisors is considerably greater for employees with low self-control, leading the researchers to recommend that companies “screen job applicants for self-control.”  They write that “the issue of whether or not subordinates retaliate against an abusive supervisor is ultimately one of self-control.”

HOW Analysis:

The researchers aptly note that there is a trend towards retaliation against abusive bosses; in lieu of real two-way conversation channels, employees are finding other ways to acting out their frustration. But the research findings essentially place the responsibility of retaliation on the employee receiving the abuse, instead of the supervisor who is giving the abuse. This study reads like a set of Machiavellian pointers to bosses on how to command-and-control their subordinates (i.e. “Hire people who can take the hit and not do anything about it” or “Scare them enough and they won’t hurt you”).

The problem is that in a transparent world fueled by technology, there is no way to control and puppeteer every single behavior by your employees. When CEO of AOL, Tim Armstrong, rudely fired an employee in the middle of a conference meeting, he was forced to apologize after his firing was recorded and publicized on the internet, which generated an intense amount of scrutiny.

The problem with a leadership style based on motivation and coercion (carrots and sticks) is that they are finite levers. There is only so much money you can pay, or so much fear you can instill—your employee can always leave your company. The much greater need is not figuring out how to stop wronged employees from retaliating, but how to create a context where they not only do not feel so wronged that they want to retaliate, but they are truly adding value to a company through their innovation, collaboration, responsible risk-taking, and so on.

These elevated behaviors are what each supervisor truly desires, and they cannot be simply coerced or motivated (for a fuller explanation, read this Forbes’ column). Leaders can no longer rely solely on carrots and sticks to exert power over people; instead, they need to “connect and collaborate” through two-way conversations to generate power through people. As power starts to shift to individuals, leadership itself must shift with it — from coercive or motivational leadership that uses sticks or carrots to extract performance and allegiance out of people to inspirational leadership that inspires commitment and innovation and hope in people.

Categories: HOW: Leadership

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1 reply »

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