Revenge in the Workplace Can Be Good

PULLMAN, Wash.–Is revenge simply emotional and volatile, always an irrational response in civilized society?

Not necessarily, declares Tom Tripp, WSU Vancouver business professor. He argues that revenge has its place in the work environment if it effects positive change either for the avenger or for the organization.

“Conventional wisdom views revenge only in behavioral terms,” says Tripp. “But it can be cognitive and intrapersonal, constructive and prosocial, have its own rationality, and be rooted in seeking justice. It can be an effective tool to deter power abuse by authority figures, promote cooperation between conflicting parties, and initiate corporate policy change. In other words, revenge in the workplace is often a good emotion that brings about positive results.”

With colleague Bob Bies at Georgetown University, Tripp is one of only a very few academicians studying this powerful area of conflict management. Bies was Tripp’s adviser when they were at Northwestern University.

“The most compelling reason for me to join Bob in studying revenge was the void of research in this area where the costs are mostly social and not measurable in dollars.”

Organizational and management theorists have long portrayed revenge as “irrational” and “destructive.” This is a distorted and incomplete view representing an ideological bias, says Tripp. “Another reason this image was perpetuated was the absence of a theoretical framework to guide research on revenge in organizations — a framework that includes the avenger’s perspective.”

In their three studies, Tripp and Bies sought true stories and evaluations from 280 MBAs, all with substantial work experience, at Georgetown, WSU Vancouver, and WSU Tri-Cities. Bies collected data for the first study, which proposes a grounded theory and focuses on why and when people seek revenge in organizations. Tripp and Bies collaborated on designing the second and third studies, which focus more systematically on when and why people choose not to seek revenge despite motivation.

“Sparking events” stemmed from formal or etiquette organizational rule violations, such as the denial of reimbursement for MBA studies, or from damage to social identities, such as undue criticism from the boss. The avenger often ruminates about the experienced harm, re-playing the incident in his head, revisiting the scene of the crime on fact-finding missions, and seeking reinforcement from allies in “bitch sessions,” thus cultivating a deeper resolve for revenge.

To understand what an avenger does with such resolve, Tripp and Bies imagine a pressure cooker where the resolve is the heated pressure built up inside. The avenger’s thoughts and resolve swirl in this pressure cooker inside the mind until, somehow, the pressure is released such that the avenger cools off. Cooling off happens in one of four ways.

First, the avenger can blow off steam by reliving the incident publicly or sharing fantasies about “painful and sordid revenge” he would inflict on the wrongdoer.

Second, the avenger could choose to forgive and do nothing — the equivalent of removing the heat source and letting the pressure slowly dissipate — perhaps because he gave the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt, couldn’t think of anything to do, feared retaliation, didn’t have an opportunity, didn’t want to pay the psychological or moral costs, or felt karmic justice would eventually prevail.

Third, the avenger could do nothing without letting go of the pressure, as if the lid of the pressure cooker was screwed down too tight. Sometimes this would-have-been avenger obsessively ruminates for years, living with regrets and cynicism about her workplace.

Or, fourth, the avenger could explode — often in limited, focused, and constructive ways. She could work harder to prove the perpetrator wrong, privately confront him to negotiate a resolution, avoid the harmdoer, slack on work, or leave the job. Some explosions lead to feuding, whistle blowing, blind-siding, or most rarely, physical violence.

Social withdrawal, Tripp and Bies have found, is the most common form of revenge.

Avengers who felt dissatisfied with revenge called their acts “unprofessional,” “risky,” “disproportionately harmful to the perpetrator,” or said they “harmed bystanders,” “incurred counter-retaliation by the perpetrator,” or were left with a still-unresolved problem.

Revenge was viewed as worthwhile, however, when it “helped others,” “restored my own status,” “helped myself,” “corrected the perpetrator’s behavior,” “improved self-efficacy,” “improved my relationship with the perpetrator,” “restored justice,” or “revenge was the only choice.” Tripp and Bies point to these constructive and pro-social results as being valuable to the organizational function, with retaliation being an informal and important social control mechanism in organizations.

Revenge, they conclude, is a response to provocation, a choice to alter one’s behavior to produce consequences for the perpetrator and bring justice. Tripp says determining the virtue of revenge further requires a look at who is affected by the revenge act — the avenger, perpetrator, or bystander, and whether each views the effect as constructive or destructive.

Tripp and Bies believe their current research shows that the benefits of revenge in the workplace often far outweigh its negatives. And, Tripp says, the study is therapeutic for him and has lead him to study his own behaviors and modify his revenge responses.

“Of course I get even. And, people get even with me. But I no longer always feel guilty about it or always let it bother me. I do believe that getting even can be good for the organization. Intrinsically, I find it all very interesting.”