‘Bridge-Gate’ & Payback at Work

Empathy Organizational leadership Respect


Key Point: The three “R’s” associated with victimization are: Retribution, Redirected Aggression and Revenge. Each has no long term legitimate value in the work place. In their book, Payback, Judith Eve Lipton and David Barash note: “Since humans began cooperating, and also failing to do so, there have been, among the under-appreciated drivers of human misery, the three R’s of payback.” Further noted by the authors, “In most cases of payback, the person who pained the initial victim receives his comeuppance either immediately (in which case it is retaliation), or after a delay and typically with heightened intensity (revenge). But in a more bizarre formulation, it is sometimes not the source of the pain but an innocent third party who is on the receiving end (redirected aggression).” I have seen the miserable three R’s in action in the workplace. I also want to see them expunged from the default action too many people apply. Is this wishful naivety? I don’t think so. (Make a list of common, big and small ways you have seen payback applied at work… Hmm… Not behaviors to be proud of).

Although many of my readers live outside the U.S., I’m assuming most are aware that New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, claims that he wasn’t personally involved in the recent and despicable act of punishing the people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, by artificially creating a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. This behavior is a living example of redirected aggression causing misery to many innocents… Like kids stuck on school buses for hours, and first responders seriously delayed in helping the critically hurt (and possibly the death of one 91-year-old woman suffering from cardiac arrest). Christie, although pleading ignorance, has a history of what The New York Times called “vindictive behavior,” including a Rutgers University professor being denied financing for a research project after he had voted against Christie on a redistricting commission, and a Republican colleague being disinvited to an event in his own district after he had a disagreement with the governor. Despite whoever proves to be culpable, the behavior flowing out of the governor’s office serves as a useful reference for this blog.

The application of payback on the world stage is beyond my pay grade. However, what I do strongly believe is that the three “R’s” rarely have sustainable value in any work organization. The people who have thrived in my experience are those that bring the most value to others, not those who become ulcer-causing experts at payback. The very best leaders are tough-minded and make difficult decisions every day. They embrace, rather than avoid constructive conflict. BUT they DO NOT, as a matter of their ethical framework, typically come from a place of payback.

Character Moves:

  1. Avoid the three R’s. When you feel like you’ve been unfairly wronged at work (and it’s almost 100 percent guaranteed that you will one day), take some serious time to contemplate the best long-term action. You will be tempted, based on a sense of evolutionary survival, to apply one of the three R’s. You may even fantasize about using them. I must admit, employing this behavior has crossed my mind from time to time. DO NOT DO IT.
  2. Look for a more constructive, valued path. Applying the three R’s is short term, destructive and frankly selfish. Talk to people you respect. Get their insight for applying action that will bring the best value to you and others. You will not be considered a patsy if you don’t strike back. You on the other hand will be deeply “self and other” respected for taking the high road.

As the authors of Payback so thoughtfully write: “The more we comprehend the workings of the three R’s, the more effective mechanisms we may find for transcending selfishness and expanding empathy and compassion.”

Constructive Payback in The Triangle,