The Yale School of Management reports that one in four U.S. workers may be chronically angry on the job. What is going on? How do we regain control?
Using a behavioral approach, we can see that there are three different causes for anger and violent action, and three types of perpetrators that we need to identify.
The bullyMany violent acts stem from the desire to have something, and the perception that violence is the only way to get it. This is what motivates the Bully. The gunman who holds up a liquor store and shoots the owner because he wants money is a bully. So is the addict who beats up a doctor to get what he wants, namely drugs.
Certain employees see a lot of bullies: Fast food workers on the night shift, taxi cab drivers, workers in hostile countries, and others employed in areas prone to violence.
The strikerA perceived or real need to respond to some form of threat or punishment is the second cause of angry actions. A “punisher” can be anything that a person gets as a result of his or her actions but doesn’t like or want. Traffic tickets, negative evaluations, and more work are three common forms of punishment — three consequences most people do not like getting. The Striker acts as though force is the only way to stop or ward off a threatening situation, or to retaliate against the use of punishment by another person.
The erupterThe third cause of violent reactions is the least understood and probably the most common. It’s the failure to get something that a person wants and expects to get. Road rage, for example, is often triggered when drivers can’t move forward fast enough or find the parking space they want. The technical name for this experience or consequence is extinction, and the person who experiences it could be called an Erupter.
“Extinction” describes the demise of certain behaviors or activities. A sales person who expects to close a sale experiences extinction when the buyer suddenly cancels during the final call. You can call it the frustration of failure.
Most people can cope when a long shot doesn’t pay off, but a sure thing is a different matter. Some people are far less able to cope with their frustrations and are more likely to react violently. This response usually differs from the other two forms of violence because it is spontaneous, and often seems out of proportion to the triggering event. This is why we’re surprised by the Erupter.
Companies that have already introduced a behavior-based safety system into their workplace can apply these valuable skills to control Bullies, Strikers, and Erupters.
Blunting the bulliesIn some ways, Bullies — those who find violence the best way to get what they want — are the easiest threat to control. There are several options. You can refrain from hiring them, and you can dismiss anyone who engages in violent behavior at work. The most effective way to prevent Bullies from injuring other employees is to keep them out of the workplace.
A gunman who threatens employees from the outside is a different problem. The best defense is to make it too difficult for the gunman to succeed. This can be done by installing equipment such as bullet-proof glass, by arranging for employees to work in groups, or by using automated equipment at certain times or locations to remove employees from direct contact with potential Bullies.
The more difficult problem is how to help employees rather than terminate them. Managers and hourly employees using a behavior-based process should have enough practice with positive feedback and reinforcement to be able to reinforce the less aggressive behavior of Bullies. Use this four-step process:
1. Identify how the Bully currently responds to specific situations;
2. Identify better — less violent — ways to respond;
3. Address obstacles that could impede the Bully’s attempts to solve problems using non-violent actions; and
4. Deliver positive reinforcement after the new behaviors have been used.
Two strategies for strikersRemoving the potential for violence delivered by the Striker requires at least two types of intervention.
First, remove unnecessary forms of punishment that cause anger to build up and finally explode. Unnecessary punishers include having mistakes flaunted in public, posting the names of those whose performance is sub-standard, having to compensate for problems caused by a system that could reasonably be corrected, and unacceptable yet controllable environmental factors such as poor air, light, or temperature.
Behavior-based safety teaches a process for analyzing consequences that deter safe behavior. This same process can be used to determine the primary punishers in the workplace that need to be corrected. Work teams are probably the best groups to analyze the primary ways that work gets done, and to remove the punishers that increase tendencies to act aggressively.
De-escalating interpersonal confrontation is the second way to reduce the Striker’s use of violence. We need to give managers and peers tools to deliver negative feedback and consequences in ways that minimize violent reactions. In a workshop, employees can learn how to explain problems without attacking a person, how to sense when another person is feeling attacked, and how to respond appropriately to someone who believes they are being unjustly attacked.
Three ways to prevent eruptionsThree strategies have a high potential for combating frustration triggered by extinction, the inability to get what you feel you have earned.
Improving self-management skills is the first strategy. Set up a system that enables employees to set in motion their own positive reinforcement. The reinforcement may be a simple note in a personnel file that adds to their next performance review or demonstrates readiness for more advanced job assignments, or it may translate into points for tangible rewards. Reinforcers can be customized to each company and its employees. This self-reinforcing system is effective because it counters the problem of people feeling neglected and undervalued, and exploding over one or more small frustrations.
Another way to enhance self-management skills is through the use of positive questions. Every manager should know at least three questions they can ask that will help an employee recount achievements that merit reinforcement. This ability to notice and name what you can be proud of provides reinforcement to counter the frustration of being temporarily out of control when the copier doesn’t work, or when fellow committee members won’t listen to bright ideas.
Analyzing and correcting work systems that produce frustrations is the second strategy for reducing the Erupter’s violence. Some systems make it more difficult for people to get their work done. Others mask the contributions of individuals or small work groups. So this second strategy entails analyzing primary systems such as process flow to find unnecessary sources of daily frustration. This analysis should be coupled with brainstorming sessions. Workgroups and management should seek ways to overcome the obstacles and increase the probability of each other’s success.
The third strategy for attacking the Erupter’s burst of violence is the use of workshops on handling frustration. “Stop and take a breath” is one technique that reduces frustration. Once participants learn to identify the signs of frustration, they learn to stop what they are doing, walk away from it, take a breath, and then try a new way to complete the task.
These strategies show that the threat of violence in the workplace can be substantially reduced. To have an immediate impact, we must look for and alter the consequences that trigger outbursts. Change what happens to people and you will change the person. Wait for the person to change himself and somebody may be hurt or even killed. The basic theory and skills used to implement a successful behavior-based safety process can lead the way to the necessary changes that can save lives.