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Getting Even: Small-Scale Retaliation

"Retaliate? Not me!" Most of us are careful never to retaliate in the workplace, especially against someone who reports to us. We know such actions are illegal as well as unattractive. Yet, we may "get back" at others, especially peers and team members, on a small scale every day and hardly notice. Retaliation in the non-legal sense starts small as a response to feeling wronged.

"Giving someone a dose of his own medicine" or withholding information when someone has inconvenienced, or worse, hurt us can be an almost automatic response. We may operate in the "get even" mode with peers and be unaware of the ill will and hostility it breeds.

We know trying to “get even” isn’t going to lead to much good. We might get a little immediate satisfaction, but history tells us retaliation just prolongs a bad situation. We know it didn’t “work” because stress and discomfort continue.

Giving someone “a taste of his own medicine” often escalates conflict. We may see it as a way to even things out, but the other person may see it as a fresh provocation rather than a response. The result is that hurt and anger build, a relationship stalls or breaks down, and the group or team is affected as well.

We may fear that expressing emotions is inappropriate in a business situation. However, if unexpressed emotions are getting in the way of resolving a problem or having a productive relationship with a co-worker, it is necessary to address them so that everyone can get back to business.

To express how you feel and address issues in a business-like way:

  • Tell the other person why the issue is important to you and shouldn’t be overlooked in the future (doing this indicates that you care about the relationship).
  • Express your thoughts on the manner with a special effort to not sound like you are whining or complaining.
  • Try to make the other person feel important to the process of resolving the problem – not at fault for causing it.
  • Be honest, thoughtful, and controlled.
  • Be aware of your demeanor — the objectives are to be non-defensive, courteous, and professional.
  • Describe your emotional state without losing control, using specifics, and using “I” instead of “you” (e.g., “I am angry” instead of “You make me so angry.”)
  • Afterward, reflect on how you expressed yourself (“What did I do well?”, “Where could I improve?”, and “Do I need to follow up with the other person?”

Catch yourself the next time you feel an urge to "show someone what it feels like" or “even the score.” Take the direct approach and tell the person the impact of his or her actions and how you feel about them. You’ll lead the way in effective conflict resolution; and your relationship will be stronger when a real problem comes along.

For more information on expressing emotions, read Managing Conflict Dynamics: A Practical Approach by Capobianco, Davis, and Kraus (Eckerd College Leadership Development Institute, St. Petersburg, FL, 2001) available at

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