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Business: Organizational Behaviour/Human Resource Management (OB/HRM) Area

Research Tidbit: When is Revenge a “Moral” Response to Mistreatment?

New Research from Dr. Laurie Barclay and David Whiteside (OB/HRM)

May 24/13

What makes some people view revenge as a way to “right wrongs” whereas others choose to take the “moral high ground” and avoid revenge when mistreated? New research by Dr. Laurie Barclay (Wilfrid Laurier University), doctoral student David Whiteside (Wilfrid Laurier University), and Dr. Karl Aquino (University of British Columbia) suggests that the answer depends not only on whether people view themselves as “moral” but also their personal standards and beliefs about how people should or ought to behave.

There has been a long-standing debate about whether moral people will resist seeking revenge because they do not deem revenge to be “moral” or whether they will be particularly likely to engage in revenge to punish others who violate moral principles.

Across three studies, this research showed that people who value being moral are more likely to view mistreatment as wrong and deserving of a response.

However, how they respond to mistreatment depends on whether they believe that people are justified in reciprocating negative treatment.  

Moral people were more likely to seek revenge for mistreatment if they believed that it was appropriate to reciprocate negative treatment. But, moral people avoided revenge if they did not endorse this belief. Interestingly, these effects occurred when moral people were victims of mistreatment and when they observed others being mistreated.

What does this mean for organizations? Revenge is a common problem in organizations – employees may steal company property or retaliate against managers and other employees to “even the score” in response to mistreatment. Some estimates suggest that American companies lose over 4.2 billion dollars/year as a result of these types of behaviors.

Although managers often assume that these behaviors occur because of “deviant” employees, this research suggests that some revenge may occur because people think that it is the “right thing to do” and believe that they are upholding moral principles or standards. This has significant implications for how organizations need to address the behavior and manage their employees.

For more information about this research, please contact Dr. Laurie Barclay (lbarclay@wlu.ca).

Barclay, L. J., Whiteside, D. B., & Aquino, K. (in press). To avenge or not to avenge? Exploring the interactive effects of moral identity and the negative reciprocity norm.  Journal of Business Ethics. DOI: 10.1007/s10551-013-1674-6

Abstract:

Across three studies, the authors examine the interactive effects of moral identity and the negative reciprocity norm in predicting revenge. The general argument is that moral identity provides the motivational impetus for individuals’ responses, whereas the normative framework that people adopt as a basis for guiding moral action (e.g., negative reciprocity norm) influences the direction of the response. Results indicated that moral identity and the negative reciprocity norm significantly interacted to predict revenge. More specifically, the symbolization dimension of moral identity interacted with the negative reciprocity norm to predict revenge when individuals were the targets of mistreatment, whereas the internalization dimension of moral identity interacted with the negative reciprocity norm to predict revenge when individuals were the observers of mistreatment. Theoretical implications related to the differences between the symbolization and internalization dimensions of moral identity, the importance of examining normative frameworks, and the functionality of revenge are discussed.

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