Volume 1, Issue 1, 2007    
  The Relationship Between Self-Esteem And Indirect Aggression In The Workplace    

Sara Dettinger, Temple University, sara.martino@stockton.edu
Gordon Hart, Temple University, gh@temple.edu.



Studies of indirect aggression in adulthood have been limited in past research and many conducted outside of the United States. The current study examined the presence of indirect aggression in a large computer company and insurance company in the Northeastern United States, using the Work Harassment scale (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, and Lagerspetz, 1994) as the measure of indirect aggression. The concepts of personal self-esteem and collective self-esteem were also examined using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and the Collective Self-esteem scale. Results showed that there was a relationship between personal self-esteem and indirect aggression. Implications of the study and future directions of research are discussed.


Research conducted on peer aggression among women has been based on the assumption that because women rarely display physical or overt aggression, aggressive behavior is, therefore, a male phenomenon (Buss, 1961 in Bjorkqvist, 1994). Several previous studies have asserted that males are more physically aggressive then females (Bjorkqvist, 1994; Bjorkqvist, Lagerspetz, and Kaukiainen, 1992; Crick and Rose, 2000). More recent research has challenged the gender position in aggression studies and has broadened the definition of aggressive behavior to include more indirect forms. According to Paquette and Underwood  (1999), an adolescent’s expression of anger and contempt for peers can be expressed through not only physical aggression, but also through non-physical means, such as manipulation, exclusion, and gossip.   

A clear understanding of gender differences, if any, in the expression of indirect aggression does not exist. In addition, it is not clear what characteristics may be closely related to the display of indirect aggression in adulthood. There is also missing data in the research on aggression in the workplace. Current studies have focused solely on physical aggression. By obtaining more information on aggression in an adult population, the field can be better informed about adult aggressive behavior and the nature of conflict among adult employees. It will also serve to determine whether men exhibit indirect aggression in adulthood. 

Relational aggression has been named as a type of aggression exhibited in females by Crick and other researchers (Crick, 1995; Crick, 1996; Crick & Gropeter, 1996; Crick and Bigsbee, 1998). Crick (1995) defines this type of aggression as harming others through damaging the peer relationships or threatening of peer relationships. Examples of relational forms of aggression include excluding a member of a group or threatening to destroy a relationship as a means of exhibiting control. Crick and Gropeter (1995) further define it as a manipulation of friendship patterns, such as telling others they will not like them if they do not do something and excluding others from activities. They believe that females exhibit relational aggression in order to thwart social goals of persons whom they dislike. Galen and Underwood (1997), however, believe that the definition of aggressive behavior of females by Crick and Gropeter (1995, 1996) may not capture all means of behavior, such as facial expression or comments made behind others’ backs. 

Galen and Underwood (1997) developed a more comprehensive definition of aggressive behavior and called it social aggression. “Social aggression is directed towards damaging another’s self-esteem, social status, or both, and may take direct forms such as verbal rejection, negative facial expression or body movements, or more indirect forms such as slanderous rumors or social exclusion” (p. 589). All of these behaviors have a common goal of harming social standing, which appear to be the core of understanding female aggression. Men are valued for their stature and power, while women navigate power through their social networks (1997). However, Galen and Underwood define this type of aggression by including direct and indirect methods, relational and aggressive techniques, and yet still are able to operationally define this behavior from direct physical aggression. 

Bjorkqvist, Osterman and Hjelt-Back (1994) describe the presence of indirect aggression among adults in the workplace. They defined a two-tiered concept for indirect aggression or “harassment” in business settings: rational-appearing aggression and social manipulation. Rational types of aggression include interrupting, criticizing and questioning the judgment of others (Bjorkqvist, 1994). Social manipulation is defined as insulting the personal life of another worker, negative glances, and backbiting (Bjorkqvist, 1994). While similar to other forms of aggression described in children, these categories were specifically created for use in measuring aggression in adults. 

For the purpose of establishing operational definitions of aggression to further research in this area, the terms physical and indirect aggression were used in the current study. To summarize, physical aggression is defined as bullying, yelling, aggressive harassment, or touching (Bjorkqvist, 1994). Indirect aggression is defined as verbal rejection, negative facial gestures, slanderous rumors or social exclusion from a group. It will also include criticism and questioning judgment. Both of these definitions provide clear-cut and behaviorally defined actions that can be identified in natural observation and in survey research.  

Within the last ten years, there has been a movement to increase the understanding of indirect aggression and how it applies to women in their culture. Bjorkqvist and others have expanded their research on indirect aggression in children to include the study of an adult population. They developed a scale for measuring indirect aggression in adults, and used it in order to find out if there was indirect aggression in an adult population. In a 1994 study by Bjorkqvist, Osterman and Lagerspetz, they found that there were sex differences in the expression of indirect aggression. Indeed, they found by surveying 333 university employees in Finland, that men and women did in fact use some form of indirect aggression quite frequently. 

They found two types of indirect aggression that were used by the people in the study: rational-appearing aggression and social manipulation. Results showed that men were more likely than women to express aggression through rational-appearing methods, exhibiting behaviors such as “being criticized” and “one’s sense of judgment being questioned” (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Lagerspetz, 1994, p. 30). Women were more likely to express some examples of social manipulation, such as “spreading of false rumors” and “not being spoken to” (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Lagerspetz, p. 30). 

A similar study conducted by Bjorkqvist, Osterman, and Hjelt-Back (1994) found that more female university employees felt harassed in the workplace. The study was conducted with a sample of 338 university employees in Finland who completed the Work Harassment Scale and also 19 participants who participated in clinical interviews. Women were more likely to endorse items of indirectly aggressive behavior than men. 

However, it should be noted that fewer than half of the participants acknowledged work harassment at all. Also, the means for the WHS were .50 (sd=.45) for women and .29 for men (sd=.33). This means that the mean response fell within the “never” range on the Likert scale. This study was also conducted in Finland and focused solely on the experience of indirect aggression among women. While it does provide an additional example of indirect aggression, more research needs to be conducted to examine gender and indirect aggression in the workplace. 

While the results of this study were interesting and serve to further differentiate gender differences with regard to indirect aggression, the results have not been replicated in the United States. Further, there have not been studies that looked at other factors that might be related to the use or presence of indirect aggression strategies, such as self-esteem or group identity.    

The correlates of self-esteem and group identity have been examined in adults, although not in a study of indirect aggression. Previous research looked at the concept of self-esteem as it relates to indirect aggression and hostility in adult women.  In a study conducted in 1998 by Cowan, Neighbors, DeLaMoreaux, and Behnke, it was found that women exhibited hostile feelings towards other women. The researchers also looked at two types of self-esteem and how they may be related to hostility towards women. They found that women with lower collective self-esteem, along with low personal self-esteem, were more likely to be hostile towards other women. Collective self-esteem was defined as one’s acceptance and acknowledgement of membership to a group, in this case, gender group (Cowan, et.al, 1998). Those with high collective self-esteem were less likely to be hostile to other women. 

Collective self-esteem was shown to be related to feminist identity and social acceptance for women (Carpenter & Johnson, 2001). Women who had a strong sense of their identity as part of a gender group were more accepting of other women. This finding may prove Collective self-esteem to be an important consideration in looking at indirect aggression among women. It may be that having social acceptance of one’s gender can play a role in the absence or presence of aggression. 

Luhtanen and Crocker (1992) also found that the Collective self-esteem is an appropriate measure of one’s social identity. In their article, they discuss the two basic concepts of identity, personal identity and social identity that they define as collective identity. Social identity is typically considered to be based on interpersonal domains in the American culture, where collective identity is looking at membership in various groups (Luhtanen & Crocker). This is important to understanding aggression, in that collective identity can be used to examine gender group identity as a possible correlate to aggressive behavior. 

The goal of the present study is to expand upon recent research of indirect aggression in an adult population, as well as to examine some possible correlates of this behavior. The hypothesis is that women will exhibit higher levels of indirect aggression and that indirect aggression will be related to both personal and collective self-esteem. 



Participants were selected from two businesses: a computer company and an insurance company (n=200). There were 100 female participants and 100 male participants targeted. All participants were asked to sign a consent form and informed of their rights as research participants. The only requirement for participation in research was that the participant was required to be over the age of 18. Racial/cultural identity of the participants was requested in the demographics section of the questionnaire, and most of the participants were Caucasian. Therefore, this information was not included in the data analysis.  There were no significant differences between the two companies with regards to socio-economic status and cultural identity. 

Both companies had a range of salaries from less than 30,000 to over 100,000 and the salaries were not equally represented. The breakdown of income was as follows: 24% made $0 to $35,000; 17% made $35,001 to $50,000; 4% made $50,000 to $75,001; 31% made $75,001 to $100,000; and 25% made over $100,000. This indicates that many of the participants in the study were in a high income bracket and had positions in management, as opposed to entry-level.

Of the 200 surveys distributed, only 190 were completed.  Of those that were turned in, there were approximately ten that were incomplete or incorrectly completed. Therefore, 90 surveys from each gender were selected for data analysis, for a total of 180 participants. 


Collective Self-Esteem Scale

The Collective Self-Esteem scale was developed in 1992 by Luhtanen and Crocker. It is a measure that looks at self-evaluation as it relates to one’s social identity. The scale consists of four main factors that were shown to have high factor loadings (Luhtanen & Crocker, 1992). The four main factors are membership esteem, private collective self-esteem, public collective self-esteem, and identity. The scale has been modified for use by the authors for looking at specific racial and cultural backgrounds.   

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale

Self-Esteem is a broad concept to measure the global personal self-evaluations, according to the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. This ten-item inventory uses a 4-point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree (0) to strongly disagree (3) and was developed by Rosenberg (1965).  Items include: “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself” and “I feel I have a number of good qualities”.  

Work Harassment Scale 

The Work Harassment Scale (WHS) was developed by Bjorkqvist, Osterman, and Lagerspetz (1994) to examine indirect aggression in an adult population. They modified their previous measure, the Direct and Indirect Aggression for use with adults. Items do not include sexual harassment.  Items do include “reduced opportunities to express yourself”, “being interrupted”, and “insinuative negative glances”.

Data Analysis

Simple correlations were computed in order to determine if there are any significant correlations between gender and scores on the WHS, gender and scores on the RSE scale, and gender and scores on the CSE scale. A multiple regression analysis was performed with the data from the three surveys administered.  Two separate multiple regression analyses were conducted to compare both the male and female sample in order to determine is there was a significant relationship between gender groups on the three variables. 


The purpose of this study was to examine the possible relationship among self-esteem, collective self-esteem, and indirect aggression. The dependent variable of indirect aggression was measured by the Work Harassment Scale (WHS), developed by Bjorkqvist, Osterman, and Lagerspetz (1994), to examine indirect aggression in an adult population. Simple means were calculated for scores on the WHS for both men and women, and there were no significant gender differences found (see Table 1.1). 

Table 1.1

 Means on Work Harassment Scale (and standard deviations) by Gender

                                    Work Harassment Scale

Gender                        Mean               Standard Deviation                 Pearson r         Sample

Female                                  1.13                       .71                                                          -.019                      90

Male                                       .97                          .62                                                          -.019                      90

This study also involved several independent variables intended for use with the WHS. The independent variable of personal self-esteem was measured by the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (1965). The independent variable of collective self-esteem was measured by a revised version of the Collective Self-Esteem Scale (Carpenter & Johnson, 2001). Correlations between the WHS and CSE did not yield any significant findings for women (r=4.20, p>.05) or men (r=4.15, p >.05). 

Pearson r correlations were significant for both women and men on the WHS and the RSE. For women, scores on the RSE were correlated to scores on the WHS; R=.290, (p < .01). This suggests a moderate correlation between scores on the two scales. It appears that women who reported higher personal self-esteem reported experiencing less indirect aggression in the workplace.  There was a correlation between scores on the WHS and RSE for men as well, with a Pearson r of .207 (p< .05). It appears that for men as well as women, those who reported higher levels of personal self-esteem were less likely to endorse items on the WHS (see table 1.2). 

Table 4.3

Correlations between RSE and WHS by gender

Gender            Mean RSE        Mean WHS       Pearson Correlation                Significance

Female                  .54                          1.13                       .290                                                       p <.01

Male                       .50                          .97                          .207                                                       p <.05

A stepwise multiple regression was also calculated for both men and women. In step one of the regression for women, RSE was selected with an R=.290 and a coefficient of determination of .084 (p< .01). In step two of the regression, CSE was selected with an R = .367 (p<.01) and a coefficient of determination of .135. In step one of the regression for men, RSE was again selected with an R=.207 and a coefficient of determination of .043 (p<.05) (See Table 1.3)

Table 4.4

Step-Wise Multiple Regression Results by Gender

Gender            Variable Selected                    R          R Square          Significance

Female                  RSE                                                        .290        .084                        p <.01

                                CSE                                                        .367        .135                        p <.01

Male                       RSE                                                        .207        .043                        p <.05


General Implications of Findings

The main purpose of this study was to examine the correlates of personal self-esteem, collective self-esteem, and their possible relationship to indirect aggression in the workplace as reported by adult men and women. Previous research had already established that indirect aggression occurred in childhood and that there were certain interpersonal variables that coincided with the presence of indirect aggression. A secondary goal was to determine if indirect aggression was related to gender differences. The Collective Self-Esteem scale (Luhtanen & Crocker, 1992) was selected as the variable to determine group identity and help shed some light on the possibility of group identity, in this case gender group, had an impact on indirect aggression. 

The finding with greatest significance was the relationship between personal self-esteem and indirect aggression. From a theoretical perspective, it appears that personal difficulties are most closely related to indirect aggression than problems with group identity. The higher the level of self-esteem reported by the people in the study, the less they reported experiencing indirect aggression.

This is consistent with previous work on self-esteem and aggression in general, where it has been found that people with high self-esteem as less likely to be directly aggressive (Baumeister, Bushman, and Campbell, 2000; Bushman and Baumeister, 1998). Although low self-esteem has not been found to cause direct aggression either, it appears that threatened egotism leads to the greatest likelihood of aggressive behavior (Baumeister, Bushman, and Campbell). While no causality can be implied, the relationship between self-esteem and indirect aggression found in the current study could have implications for training and workshops in the business setting.

Personal self-esteem can be important to the work environment. The better employees feel about themselves, the better they are able to work well with others. Those employees that reported low levels of self-esteem may be dissatisfied with their work environment, or experiencing difficulties in expressing themselves to others. This can lead to miscommunication or indirect aggression behaviors, such as giving the silent treatment and talking about other employees behind their backs. By strengthening communication, some indirectly aggressive behaviors may be avoided. 

While there was not a significant relationship between collective self-esteem and indirect aggression, it may be that a different scale of gender group identity would impact the results. Some of the questions had additional comments next to them, such as “confusing” or “unclear”. In using a business population, it may be that a different scale is needed to identity how they feel about being a member of their gender group. 

Henley, Meng, O’Brien, McCarthy, and Sockloskie (1998) developed a scale that attempts to measure “attitudes towards women” which they entitled the Feminist Perspectives Scale. The scale has a Cronbach’s alpha of .91, and so the factor loadings of the measure appear strong. The scale is split into several different feminist identities, such as conservative, liberal, socialist, and cultural (1998). While this measure is promising in creating a clearer picture of attitudes towards women, the heavy emphasis on feminism may make it difficult to generalize across populations. Especially in a business setting, it could be difficult for women to voluntarily complete a survey based on their feminist attitudes. 

If not a measure of feminist identity, than future research should focus on a scale that examines women’s attitudes towards other women. Qualitative research could be done in a variety of settings to gain more information about how women feel about one another and how to measure the identity of being a women and cooperating with women instead of being “mean” or “aggressive”. Focus groups would likely yield more candid information than survey research at this point. A study that would examine a different population more sensitive to gender group identity may be more useful as well. 

A study in 1999 by Worell, Stilwell, Oakley, and Robinson assessed the effects of exposure to women’s issues on feminist attitudes. They found that program of study and graduate education was related to both social construction and feminist attitudes. This could mean that a sample that is more educated and perhaps educated in a field related to gender issues could be more sensitive to this problem. Education level and program of study were not a factor in this research study, but should be a consideration in future research of the problem. 

The business community was selected because of the competitive nature of the environment and the presence of research on physical aggression in the workplace. However, since most of the population was in management positions, they may not be experiencing as much competition as employees who are in lower-level positions. 

Another direction for researching indirect aggression in the workplace could include a measure of team building. This concept of how individuals work together and are able to collaborate on projects may also lead to further information about collective identity. A measure of team building will also control for interpersonal factors that impact workplace aggression aside from gender issues. 

While this study failed to produce many significant results describing the relationship between personal and collective self-esteem to indirect aggression, it is only a first step. The directions that are possible for future research include creating replication studies with different samples or including other interpersonal variables such as depression or anxiety to examine their relationship to indirect aggression. As the interest in understanding aggression in humans grows, so too will the potential grow for research in this important area of understanding human behavior.


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