Organizational Culture

Better Understanding Workplace Aggression

Aggression in the workplace is a serious concern for organizations.  Whether it is called harassment, deviance, or bullying, workplace aggression can lead to a number of disturbing outcomes for an organization ranging in severity from low morale to even injury or death of organizational members in the most extreme cases.

Factors Involved with Aggression

A recent meta-analysis of nearly 60 studies was undertaken to better understand the personal and situational factors that influence aggression at work.  Studies involving actual aggressive behavior (versus only aggressive intentions) were included in the meta-analysis. Two types of aggression were considered: interpersonal and organizational. Interpersonal involves aggression against individuals, while organizational involves some sort of aggression against the organization itself.  Three personal factors thought to influence aggression are:
  • Trait anger – A predisposition to interpret events in a manner that makes one feel or become hostile.
  • Negative affectivity – A predisposition to experience negative emotions.
  • Sex – Possible differences in aggression between males and females.
Situational factors thought to influence aggression include:
  • Perceived injustice – Employee perceptions of outcome fairness (distributive justice), procedure fairness (procedural justice), and personal treatment fairness (interpersonal justice).
  • Interpersonal conflict – Employees acting aggressive in response to aggression from others.
  • Situational constraints – Factors such as organizational policies or limited resources that can lead to frustration by hampering performance or goals.
  • Job dissatisfaction – Acting aggressive or in a deviant manner towards the organization because one does not like one’s job.
  • Poor leadership – Organizational leaders being over-controlling, uncharismatic, and hostile.


Results indicated that personal and situational factors differentially relate to aggression.
  • Trait anger and interpersonal conflict related the most to interpersonal aggression.
  • Situational constraints, job dissatisfaction, and interpersonal conflict related the most to organizational aggression.
  • Sex (with males being more aggressive), trait anger and interpersonal conflict each better predicted interpersonal aggression than organizational aggression.
  • Poor leadership and interpersonal injustice were shown to be the strongest predictors of aggression against supervisors (and much stronger predictors than against coworkers).
  • Job dissatisfaction and situational constraints better predicted organizational aggression than interpersonal.
The above results are based on correlations that do not examine how each factor predicts aggression relative to the other factors. Regarding how much each factor contributed to predicting organizational and interpersonal aggression relative to the other factors (not including poor leadership and interpersonal injustice), it was found that sex and trait anger predicted both forms of aggression. However, due to the lack of a main effect between sex and organizational aggression (i.e., before testing the contribution of sex in predicting aggression relative to the other factors), interpretations about the relationship between sex and organizational aggression must be made with care. Negative affectivity and distributive/procedural injustice predicted neither form of aggression, relative to the other factors, in this study. Relative to the other factors, job dissatisfaction and situational constraints related to organizational but not interpersonal aggression, and interpersonal conflict related to interpersonal but not organizational aggression.

Implications for Practice

This study provides evidence that when considering workplace aggression, it is important to consider it as targeted instead of just one unified concept (i.e., lumping all types of aggression – i.e., interpersonal and organizational – together). Also, it is imperative to keep in mind that both the aspects of a person and a situation can influence aggression and do so in different ways. Specific recommendations that can be drawn from this research include:
  1. Make sure supervisors’ leadership skills are developed and productive.
  2. Strive to increase employee perceptions of outcome, procedural, and interpersonal justice.
  3. Consider offering anger management counseling or training to reduce negative effects of anger in the organization.
  4. Have clear guidelines and policies in place and promoted regarding such issues as interpersonal conflict and incivility at work.

Interpretation by:

Donnie Johnson

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Hershcovis, M. S., Turner, N., Barling, J., Arnold, K. A, Dupre, K. E., Inness, M., LeBlanc, M. M., & Sivanathan, N. (2007). Predicting Workplace Aggression: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 228-238.