“Did you really believe you could become the American Idol? Well, then, you’re deaf!”
— Simon Cowell, American Idol
By all accounts, Simon Cowell’s remark (above) to an American Idol hopeful was aggressive. It is condescending, undermining, rude, and was probably very hurtful to the contestant. It meets the definition of aggression in that it is an unwanted negative behavior that harms the target. Nevertheless, however nasty, hateful, and brutal Simon Cowell was to his contestants, he was revered by most of them. The notion that someone who, by all accounts, is abusive might actually be perceived in a positive light by so many people highlights the need to take context and the relationship between perpetrators and targets into account.
Much of the research on workplace aggression has focused on the outcomes of aggression absent its context. That is, research has shown that workplace aggression from some non-specified target (usually “someone at work”) relates to a whole host of negative consequences including lower levels of performance, higher levels of counterproductive behaviors (e.g., slacking off, coming in late), and poor work attitudes. But what if the perpetrator is someone with whom you work closely or someone whom you respect despite their sometimes abusive behaviour? Won’t that change how you react? Instead of performing poorly, might you try harder? Instead of slacking off, might you try to win the approval of said bully?
Research by my colleagues and I have found that the answer is yes and no. We studied two relationship factors between perpetrators and targets. First, we looked at the power of the perpetrator relative to the target. Next we looked at the extent to which targets have to work closely with perpetrators. Perhaps surprisingly, we found that when perpetrators have high power, targets are more likely to retaliate than when perpetrators have low power. Mistreatment from someone with high power is more unexpected, and likely more hurtful. People don’t expect their supervisors to mistreat them, so when they do, it violates role norms and is likely to trigger feelings of betrayal.
However, the story is very different when someone works interdependently with a perpetrator. We found that when people have to work closely with the perpetrator to complete their job tasks, they are much less likely to retaliate. In these instances, targets need to get a job done and retaliation might hinder that objective. Interestingly, we found that the highest level of retaliation occurred when perpetrators had high levels of power, but low levels of interdependence with the target. It seems when the cat’s away, the mouse will play!
So how does this relate to Simon Cowell? Well, our research suggests that the relationship between a perpetrator and target matters. To truly understand one’s experience of aggression, we need to consider the context in which it occurs. After all, aggression is rarely a uni-directional behavior. It is almost always a product of a relationship and as a result, the experience of aggression only makes sense in the context of that relationship.