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Kelley’s O’Boyle: In the Workplace Revenge Is a Dish Served Hot

IU Kelley's Ernest O'Boyle is Poets&Quants MBA Professor of the Week for his research on workplace revenge

“If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him:  fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” So it is written in Leviticus.

Turns out many people in the workplace are taking that Biblical passage too literally—not by poking eyes or biting, of course, but by exacting tit-for-tat revenge.

That’s the finding of a new study called—wait for it—“An Eye for an Eye? A Meta-Analysis of Negative Reciprocity in Organizations,” by Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Ernest H. O’Boyle of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. 

The paper, co-written with Lindsey M. Greco of Oklahoma State University, Jennifer A. Whitson of UCLA Anderson, Cynthia S. Wang of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Joongseo Kim of Pennsylvania State University—Erie, was published this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association.


O’Boyle and his colleagues combined original research with a “meta-analysis” (review of the literature) of some 207 previous studies covering nearly 100,000 individuals. They found that “negative workplace behavior” (NWB) is not just individual, but often reciprocal, as one party responds in kind to a perceived wrong from another person in the workplace. They also found that aggrieved parties often exact a similar level of retribution to the original offense and sometimes escalate their response but rarely try to diffuse the situation.

Those negative behaviors include the usual office backstabbing (again, not with real knives), passive-aggressive non-cooperation, “bullying, harassment, and counterproductive work behavior, that reduce employee productivity and harm organizational culture,” O’Boyle and his co-authors write. 

These behaviors range, they found, from minor or “low-intensity” actions, such as rudeness or incivility, absence from work, and doing the bare minimum, that “do limited harm to individuals or the organization [to] moderately severe behaviors that are more harmful because they are more overt or openly negative, such as bullying.”


Then there’s “the high end of the severity dimension [which] reflects behaviors that are serious and blatantly harmful to individuals or to an organization, such as aggression and physical violence,” the authors write. This extreme behavior can inflict a “substantive amount of harm” to individuals and companies, they write.

If these negative behaviors are usually repaid in kind, that would mean targets of bad behavior of the less severe kind might respond with “forms of passivity, such as lack of effort, withdrawal, and absenteeism,” O’Boyle and his co-authors write. “Withdrawal allows a target to negatively reciprocate less visibly, a tactic reflective of peoples’ tendencies to avoid confrontation and conflict when possible.”

Problem is, responses to negative behavior are often not laser-targeted at the offending individual but can affect others in the workplace. “If an employee was subjected to incivility from a coworker, that employee could be uncivil back to that coworker, the employee could be uncivil to others and not the instigating coworker, or the employee could be uncivil to both the instigator and to others,” O’Boyle and his co-authors observe. 


Also, if the victim of negative behavior is less powerful than the perpetrator, “direct or active responses may be inhibited because of the perceived likelihood of punishment,” the researchers write. In that case, they point out, “displacing negative reciprocity onto another target discharges the physiological tension related to experiencing NWB while protecting the actor from punishment or further retaliation.”

This is where workplace revenge can spread dysfunction. That’s why it’s important for managers to grasp the whole picture before disciplining any one individual. “If a manager notices and disciplines only the behavior of party B, then this may only amplify conflict between coworkers,” the researchers write. “Human resource departments may at times be better served by focusing on mediation between employees as opposed to individually based disciplinary actions.”

O’Boyle, 41, is an associate professor in Kelley’s Department of Management and Entrepreneurship. His research interests include the Dark Triad of personality (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), as well as ethics and counterproductive work behavior, the subject of this paper. He teaches courses on research methods, high-performance organizations and organizational behavior. 

Having joined the Kelley faculty in 2017, O’Boyle taught at the Henry B. Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa from 2012 to 2017. While there he won the collegiate teaching award and two early career achievement awards for the Academy of Management. He earned his BS in psychology and his PhD in management from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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About The Author

Howard R. Gold is a contributing writer to Poets&Quants and a columnist for MarketWatch. His writing has appeared in Forbes, Barron’s, Money & USAToday. Follow on Twitter @howardrgold.