01/10/2014 12:30 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

Christie, the Workplace and the Culture of Retaliation

As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie scrambles to prove he's not a bully who stops up traffic as payback for disloyalty, a more interesting question might be, just how entrenched is the culture of retaliation in any of our lives? While Christie protests that "mistakes were made" (probably the only time he's used the passive voice), the allegedly liberal Obama administration's aggressive retaliation against whistleblowers has been less scandalous, perhaps, but equally disturbing. Left or right, liberal or conservative, retaliation thrives in our political arenas -- and no arena is more political than where any of us spend our day and earn our pay -- the politics of work.

For all the legal protections we've gained to lessen the risks of retaliation, at least for certain acts, the unstoppable flow of EEOC complaints and employment lawsuits alleging retaliation suggest it remains rampant. As workplace bullying experts and targets also make clear, HR departments routinely back managerial retaliation tactics against employees who have crossed them. And as any worker who has been retaliated against soon discovers, entire professions can be destroyed when professional colleagues join in distancing themselves from any worker who has been retaliated against. The code of silence that binds colleagues of any profession together requires tacit agreement that retaliation may not be fair, but it will be effective. Play politics, or pay the price. This rule is as true for nurses, teachers or firefighters as it is for governors and mayors.

Unfortunately, the acts which give rise to retaliation are all too often petty slights, such as a mayor not endorsing a candidate, while the retaliatory acts are great (and often provoke further retaliation in kind, leading to escalating conflicts with no intention or hope of being resolved). The worker who disagrees with the "consensus" at a meeting or doesn't back some goofy (or brilliant) innovation, can find themselves fired or subjected to a series of specious internal investigations. Just the other day a principal at a charter school was fired after eight years of work for what she alleges was retaliation for objecting to a cafeteria policy. The policy was that children who did not have enough money for their lunches would have their hands stamped, effectively branding them as poor. It could be argued (and it might even be true) that there was more to her dismissal than that, but given the ease with which people do retaliate when some uppity woman (or ornery man) comes along and does what's right, it's quite likely that's really all she did to merit the termination. The truth is, people do retaliate with ease.

What, then, can be done to stop it if the laws we have are insufficient? Human behavior, it turns out, is harder to stop than New Jersey traffic, but perhaps like New Jersey traffic, it can be slowed. Aside from becoming more aware, and resistant, to our own small acts of retaliation in our daily lives, we can also begin by separating the idea of bullies from the act of retaliation. Retaliation is one tactic of aggressive people, but it is not useful to fuse the two together; everyone engages in retaliation but to differing degrees.

By focusing on the differing objectionable behaviors we face in the workplace (or elsewhere in our lives), rather than on objectionable people, a less defensive and more revealing dialogue becomes possible. Similarly, by focusing on the practice of retaliation (as opposed to the nature of "bullies") we can bring this damaging but ubiquitous practice into the light of day. But a problem remains: as long as retaliation is framed as deserving punishment, it is viewed favorably and encouraged.

Our culture punishes. We punish in the media, we punish in our homes. We punish those we work with and those we worship with. Punishing others has come to mean strength, rather than the weakness that it all too often is. We applaud it in our TV shows and demand it in our news. Retaliation may be bad, but swift and forceful punishment is an expression of morals and an act of leadership.

We no longer clearly discern the line between retaliation and punishment, seeing only the line that divides punishment and loyalty. We're getting meaner by the minute, and calling it our morals. No one ever exacts retaliation, after all, without believing someone transgressed a moral code. They see it as just punishment, and inflict it on those who have crossed them personally or merely injured their pride.

The New York Times castigated Christie for setting "a tone of vindictiveness" in his office, raising excellent points about his potential to lead, and noting that he has created an administrative climate that makes abuse acceptable. Yet that same tone of vindictiveness and abuse is as prevalent in news rooms and shop floors and board rooms as it is to the governor's office. Perhaps it's time our society rethink the ease with which we punish, attribute credit and blame, or seek retaliation. The retaliatory bridge squeeze in New Jersey is a political issue to play out in the popular media. That's their issue (and our entertainment). But closer to home, for each of us, it's the guy down the hall, the girl in the next room, the boss, the employee, the neighbor. Who are we punishing in our own lives, and for what transgression? Who are we judging as deserving of retaliation? And what wrong have we suffered that we feel driven to get revenge?

Let's do ourselves, and our culture, a favor, and reign in the culture of retaliation. While the media debate the culpability and fallout of Christie and the traffic jam, we can look around at our own lives and each of us take a small step back on the road to revenge.