Watching a friend being mistreated can make you feel protective—and might make you want to “get back” at the transgressor. Perhaps you’ve been guilty of punishing your friend’s harasser with snide remarks, the silent treatment, or “intentionally forgetting” to invite him to a holiday party.
It turns out that this phenomenon extends to our teammates at work, too. My colleagues and I tested this idea in a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. We had a supervisor of a four-member team underpay one team member—but pay the other three as promised—for their collective work on a interdependent task.
As uncomfortable as this study was to conduct—especially for those of us playing the supervisor role—we learned something valuable.
Not only did the team member who was treated unfairly retaliate against the supervisor, but the whole team decided to retaliate by downgrading the supervisor on a performance rating form and by withholding behaviors that directly helped the supervisor. This effect was even stronger when a member viewed as critical to the team was treated unfairly.
How does this happen? The phenomenon occurs partly through emotional contagion. The mistreated team member expresses negative emotions and then the whole team “catches” and internalizes those negative emotions, which results in retaliatory behaviors.
So what should managers take away from these findings?
Remember that treating one member of a group unfairly has far-reaching effects. If you wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and make a hostile remark to one member of your team, you could face swift retaliation from your entire team.
You might not even realize that you’re being targeted. Most workplace aggression and retaliation behaviors are not direct. For example, employees recognize that actively talking back or yelling at their boss will get them into trouble, but they’re not averse to responding to poor treatment indirectly. Indirect retaliation involves passive behaviors like withholding help on an assignment that benefits the supervisor or pretending not to hear a supervisor’s request to complete a task.
The best thing that managers can do to avoid indirect retaliation is to treat individual team members—or a team for that matter—fairly in the first place.
But nobody is perfect, so what’s a manager to do after treating an employee unfairly? The good news is that making amends matters.
We also examined apologizing and found that taking the time to apologize and acknowledge the mistreatment can reverse the effect. When the supervisor publicly acknowledged the unfairness and apologized for the mistreatment, the whole team responded positively and didn’t “punish” the supervisor at all.
So, remember that a courteous and genuine apology goes a long way!