Revenge in the Workplace

Recently, I was lamenting to a colleague about employees who behave badly toward others in the workplace. Later that day, he directed me to an article by Eric Jaffe entitled, “The Complicated Psychology of Revenge” in the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer. A fascinating article, it made me think about how revenge may play a part in some employee behaviors.

According to the article, the person who focuses on revenge after an affront – or exacts the revenge – is usually worse off than the person who lets the affront go. Why? Revenge does not dissolve the anger and hostility that led to it and in fact “keeps it green.” The only exception to this is when the target of revenge understands why the act has occurred and doesn’t escalate things by getting angry in return.

So how might this play out in the workplace? Most of the time, employees who behave badly toward others, particularly toward a supervisor or manager, feel that the target has injured them in some way. It may be only a perceived slight (“He never says hello to me because I’m a low level employee”) or an actual slight (“She did not take my suggestion” or “He gave me a poor performance review”). Whatever the cause, the employee is now hurt and feels justified in exacting ….revenge.

This revenge can take many forms: a complaint about the wrongdoer, insubordination, poor performance, and so on. It may even rise to the level of making the perpetrator the dread “toxic employee.” Yet usually, as predicted by studies, the revenge doesn’t help. The employee remains as miserable as ever.

What this suggests is that when coaching or investigating employees who are behaving badly, it might be helpful to surface the idea that their reaction to the slight they are feeling is to seek revenge. From there, one can explore how revenge doesn’t usually work to improve a situation. This has to be handled delicately, of course, but it seems like a potentially fruitful way to analyze a number of difficult workplace problems.

And where appropriate, maybe it would help if the target of the revenge acknowledges to the perpetrator that this is what is happening – with or without accepting blame – to try to end the cycle of continuing hostility. 

If potential workplace violence is involved in a situation, of course, we may want to be careful employing this type of workplace psychology.

What are your thoughts about revenge in the workplace? ~Amy Stephson

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