Organizational Resources and Psychological Aggression in Pacific Northwest Library Settings

Highlights

In a study supported by the Washington Library Association (WLA), the Interest Group of Library Unions (IGLU), and the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), SHARP researchers found that when organizational context resources are high, library staff respondents report significantly less psychological aggression. This research provides evidence of the importance of building organizational resources toward preventing psychological aggression at work. Psychological aggression commonly occurs in work settings and it is important to recognize that the WLA and IGLU are active in educating their library members and are quite progressive in their support of research to examine the issue.

Introduction

Recent research reports and the public media have focused on some workers’ inclination to treat others without respect and civility. Researchers have studied overt and covert behaviors such as social isolation, work sabotage, withholding information needed to complete work, and verbal threats, and have used terms such as interpersonal conflict, incivility, workplace bullying, and psychological aggression (see Hershcovis, 2011). These behaviors are costly to organizations and employees, resulting in lowered productivity, stress and poor health, retaliation, and loss of talent as targeted individuals often choose to leave the organization in search of work in a healthier environment (Rosenstein & O’Daniel, 2005; 2008).

Federal and state laws exist to protect workers from sexual harassment in the workplace. However, no current law exists against psychological aggression, or bullying, at work. Most supervisors and employees are not explicitly trained on how to prevent or respond to coworker aggressive acts and employees may not know how to defend themselves against psychological aggression. Because there is no law to guide employers on handling psychological aggression, the organization may not be aware of it as a problem, nor motivated to stop the behavior. Thus, there is little recourse for workplace targets of psychological aggression and bullying to address the problem. This lack of organizational preparedness and control over managing psychological aggression may have an increased negative effect on employee health and work outcomes. In this research, we examine organizational support resources and their potential to reduce psychological aggression.

Organizational context resources

Psychological aggression prevention climate

Researchers conceptualized aggression prevention climate as employees’ perceptions of organizational response regarding the control and elimination of workplace physical and verbal aggression (Spector, Coulter, Stockwell, & Matz, 2007). A positive prevention climate may serve as one of a range of resources from which library staff can draw to prevent psychological aggression, and increase staff psychological safety and well-being. Specifically, a positive prevention climate indicates that there are clear organizational policies, practices, and responses to support employee efforts for preventing aggressive incidents. In addition, strong management support exists to assist staff with their efforts to prevent psychological aggression among coworkers, or to cope with the negative consequences of being targeted. Psychological aggression prevention climate has emerged as the most consistent antecedent of psychological aggression in the occupational health psychology research literature.

Supervisor support

A large body of organizational research has established that employees’ work experiences are strongly affected by perceptions of the quality of their relationship with their supervisors. We use the term perceived supervisor support to refer to employees’ understanding of the extent to which their supervisors provide emotional support (i.e., willingness to listen to problems). Prior literature on social support strongly suggests that the more support employees receive from their supervisors, the more favorable their occupational outcomes (e.g., Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002), and often shows that perceived supervisor support can buffer employees from the adverse effects of job stressors (de Lange, Taris, Kompier, Houtman, & Bongers, 2003).

In general, social support at work has been linked with positive outcomes, including improved health, work attitudes, and work behavior (Cohen & Wills, 1985, Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002). The presence of support has been shown to interact with workplace stressors to lessen the negative impacts of stress on well-being outcomes. However, several researchers have suggested that the most effective forms of social support are those that are congruent with the form of stressor. For example, work-related support may be more effective than nonwork-related support in weakening the effects of workplace stressors, such as psychological aggression, on employee well-being (Ganster & Victor, 1988).

Coworker support

Support from coworkers can occur in multiple forms, including emotional (e.g., listening to a coworker’s difficulties in balancing work and family) and instrumental (e.g., offering to help a coworker with a difficult client). A great deal of organizational literature has established that employees’ work experiences are strongly affected by perceptions of the quality of their relationship with their coworkers. We use the term perceived coworker support to refer to employees’ perceptions of the extent to which their coworkers provide emotional support (i.e., chances to express work-related emotions), informational support (i.e., knowledge that makes one’s work life easier), and instrumental support (i.e., tangible actions to help the employee). For library staff, important groups of coworkers include their library staff colleagues and subordinates. Coworker support has been linked to a number of employee and organizational outcomes, including lower levels of role conflict, role overload, role ambiguity, effort reduction, absenteeism, intention to quit, and actual turnover, and higher levels of job satisfaction, job involvement, and organizational commitment.

Workplace Aggression

Psychological aggression

Health researchers have noted that the impact of disruptive and aggressive behavior is costly for organizations – it causes distress among other staff, undermines productivity, and leads to low morale and high staff turnover (Rosenstein & O’Daniel, 2005; 2008). Again, psychological aggression is not unique to library organizations or library staff. Recent research estimates of the prevalence of a hostile work environment for those in the occupational group of “education, training and libraries” were in-line with other occupations after adjusting for age, sex, and ethnicity, at 8.1%; comparatively, the overall estimated prevalence rate for workers was 7.8% (Alterman, Luckhaupt, Dahlhamer, Ward, & Calvert, 2012).

Exposure to psychological aggression at work has been found to be negatively correlated to job performance, and this relationship is significantly explained by decreased job attitudes and health associated with exposure to psychological aggression (Schat & Frone, 2011). Some research links incivility and aggression to retention, another costly outcome for organizations. Cortina, Magley, Williams, and Langhout (2001) found that greater exposure to incivility was associated with lower job satisfaction, increased psychological distress, and stronger intentions to leave the organization. Coworker and supervisory conflict has been shown to be a statistically significant risk factor for an elevated need for recovery, prolonged fatigue, poor general health, and turnover (De Raeve, Jansen, van den Brandt, Vasse, & Kant, 2008).

Witnessing psychological aggression

Being a witness to workplace psychological aggression and incivility has also been linked to self-reported health and work outcomes, including an elevated risk of developing depressive symptoms, greater stress and greater mental strain (Emdad, Alipour, Hagberg, & Jensen, 2012; Vartia, 2001). Observing hostility and perceiving a lax organizational safety climate for harassment and hostility has also been found to be significantly related to lower general well-being and higher organizational withdrawal even when controlling for personal mistreatment (Miner-Rubino & Cortina, 2007). Porath and Erez (2007) found that student participants who experienced or witnessed rude behavior were more likely to exhibit reduced levels of performance, creativity, and helping behavior in subsequent tasks. Employees not directly exposed to psychologically aggressive behaviors at work may still be affected negatively by observing the interpersonal conflicts and aggressive behaviors between other library staff.

Target of psychological aggression

For this research we distinguish between identifying as a self-labeled target, or victim, of psychological aggression and reporting the experience of psychological aggression. Researchers have conceptually distinguished these two constructs as representative of different perceptions and responses to workplace incivility and aggression, whereby an employee may not feel targeted but will report experiencing psychologically aggressive actions (Vie, Glaso, & Einarsen, 2011; Tepper & Henle, 2011). Self-labeling as a target of bullying may also amplify the mental and physical effects of psychological aggression and workplace incivility above the strain of aggressive behavior and bullying alone (Nielsen, Hetland, Matthiesen, & Einarsen, 2012; Vartia, 2001). Thusly, identifying as a target may be a distinct stressor-strain pathway affecting employee well-being and productivity.

Sample and methods

A convenience sample was obtained through web-based employee surveys open to library staff in the Pacific Northwest area. Emailed poster and newsletter advertisements announced the availability of the web-based survey and included the website where potential participants could log-on to complete the survey. Advertisements were also included in library union interest group and association newsletters.  Additionally, library employees were also able to contact SHARP toll free to either complete the survey by telephone or by mail (received a mailed paper survey packet).

Survey data were collected from 224 library staff working in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. We are unable to calculate a response rate as the survey was forwarded to an unknown number of library staff, beyond the scope of our original email to listserves. Survey participation was confidential and voluntary and surveys were completed during non-work time at home.  All study activities were approved by the Washington State Institutional Review Board (WSIRB). Participants were mostly female (82.6%) and white (88.0%), with the majority in the 41-50 (25.5%) or 51-60 (41.1%) age ranges. Their average organizational tenure was 10.1 years (SD = 7.77) and the majority of respondents reported working at either a public (57.1%) or academic library (35.3%).

Analysis and results

To determine the effects of the organizational context variables, SHARP researchers conducted a series of multiple regression analyses predicting each model component from the set of organizational context variables and workplace aggression variables. Multiple regression analyses calculate the relationship between different sets of predictor variables and an outcome variable. This relationship is called a multiple correlation; the squared multiple correlation or multiple R squared (R2) indicates the total amount of variance explained in the outcome variable by the set of predictor variables. Multiple regression analyses generate a set of standardized regression weights (β) that indicate the relative contribution of each predictor to the outcome. Thus, researchers use multiple regression analyses to investigate which predictor variables explain the variance in an outcome. We controlled for individual differences in the analyses to account for the effects of variables that in prior research have been noted as potentially influencing relationships between organizational context factors and work-related outcomes.

The model in the analysis below allows us to examine relationships between the organizational resources and the psychological aggression outcomes to understand which support resources are important for each outcome. The results of three analyses are presented in Table 1 with the purpose of examining the relationship of organizational resources with the outcomes of psychological aggression, witnessing psychological aggression, and identifying as a target of psychological aggression. Specifically, we wanted to know if different levels of organizational support are important for predicting aggression outcomes above and beyond the individual differences that could control for variations in psychological aggression outcomes.

Table 1. The effects of organizational resources on psychological aggression outcomes.
  Psychological Aggression Outcomes
Organizational Resources Predictors Step 2 Model

Psychological Aggression
N=185

Psychological Aggression –
Witness
N=185

Psychological Aggression –
Target
N=185

Control Variables (β)      
Age −.10 −.04 −.05
Gender .03 −.01 −.05
Income −.05 .01 −.17**
Tenure with Supervisor −.07 −.07 −.03
Weekly Hours Worked .11* .06 .08
Library Type −.08 −.03 −.01
Library Size .09 .15* .08
Organizational Resources (β)      
Psychological Aggression Prevention Climate −.28*** −.44*** −.35***
Supervisor Support −.48*** −.23** −.33***
Coworker Support −.07 .00 .03
Variance explained (R) .57*** .39*** .41***
Change in R² .46 .33 .31
Note: Hierarchical linear regression final models presented. Control variables were entered in Step 1. Organizational resource and support variables were entered together in Step 2. Change in R² refers to the change in variance with the addition of the Step 2 variables. β= standardized regression weight.  *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.


Psychological aggression, witnessing psychological aggression, target of psychological aggression

We found that high levels of aggression prevention climate and supervisor support are associated with low psychological aggression among library staff. The variance explained (R²) in the psychological aggression analysis is 57%. The model also explains 39% and 41% of the variance in witnessing and identifying as a target of psychological aggression, respectively. All three analyses are highly significant and the incremental variance explained by adding the organizational resources to the model indicates a strong effect for prevention climate and supervisor support on each aggression outcome.

Aggression prevention climate represents individuals’ shared perceptions of library procedures and management response that contribute to an aggression prevention culture in the organization. These results tell us that the proximal support of supervisors and the more distal support of management response to create a climate for preventing aggressive behavior are critical resources for libraries.

Building resources along the lines of increasing aggression prevention climate and supportive supervisors is one approach libraries can take to eliminate psychological aggression. Library staff working in positive and aggression preventive climates may be protected by a better response from managers with greater prevention efforts, and thus, engage in, experience, or witness fewer psychologically aggressive acts at work.

Library employees with supportive supervisors may experience a positive direct effect from the support and recognition, thereby reducing workplace aggressive behavior and the negative effects of witnessing or being a target. It is important to emphasize that the incremental variance increase from both Step 1 to Step 2 of each analysis provides evidence that two of the three support resources significantly contribute to the relationship with each psychological aggression outcome.

Interventions or management efforts toward improving the organization’s psychological aggression prevention climate and supervisor support resources may be significant opportunities to promote civility and professionalism among library staff and eliminate norms or patterns of aggressive behavior.

Conclusions

The unique contribution of the current study is in the findings that suggest when organizational psychosocial context resources are high the stressors of psychological aggression, witnessing psychological aggression, and self-labeling as a target of psychological aggression, are low. These findings suggest that library organizations with an interest in the welfare and safety of their staff could provide interventions that invest in strengthening organizational context resources toward preventing psychological aggression and creating safer, more supportive organizational cultures.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to all for supporting this work, particularly the members of the Washington Library Association and the Interest Group of Library Unions for assisting with the advertising and recruitment for the survey and the Washington Department of Labor & Industries library staff for assistance in refinement of the survey instruments. We hope that this research can be used to develop positive interventions for the prevention of psychological aggression, and promote investment in workplace psychosocial support resources in library settings. Finally, and most importantly, we deeply appreciate the help of all of library staff who contributed to the research and the study participants who took a great deal of time out of their busy lives to tell us about their work.

Contact Nan Yragui at yran235@lni.wa.gov if you have questions about this study.

The contents of this presentation are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of these agencies, associations, or departments.

Recommended References

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Cortina, L. M., Magley, V. J., Williams, J. H., & Langhout, R. D. (2001). Incivility in the workplace: Incidence and impact. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6, 64–80.

de Lange, A. H., Taris, T. W., Kompier, M. A., Houtman, I. L., & Bongers, P. M. (2003). “The very best of the millennium": Longitudinal research and the demand-control-(support) model. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 8(4), 282-305.

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