How to Stop Workplace Aggression

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Fans of the television show, The Office, recognize the character, Dwight Shrute, a rigid, aggressive, authority-obsessed bully.  Dwight, (played by the wonderful actor Rainn Wilson) regularly pounces on co-workers, both verbally and physically, to prove his superiority.  We talk to managers and employees who describe painful encounters with aggressive, inflexible, co-workers.  These Dwight Shrutes necessitate hours of strategic planning because of the threat they pose to workplace harmony and efficiency.

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Recent research found both structural and chemical changes in the brains of aggressive people.  Aggressors show lower levels of serotonin, (a neurotransmitter associated with depression) and some structural deficits in the frontal parts of the brain necessary for regulating impulses.  Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, found changes in the brains of victims of aggression.  A lot of research demonstrates that victims of aggression are vulnerable to stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression.  Victims also face susceptibility to viruses and bacterial infections due to stress on the immune system.

Surprisingly, aggressors also suffer from the effects of their own behavior.  Aggressors can become hyperactive, and face increasing threats to immune system health with each subsequent episode of aggression.  Stress hormones cause negative health outcomes for aggressors and victims alike.  Stressful social interactions in the workplace also impact witnesses to the aggressive interaction.

One of my clients had to leave her workplace on stress disability because she witnessed an act of violence at work.  An angry boss threw her colleague to the ground.  In the aftermath of the incident the boss was not punished and the co-worker did not press charges.  This lack of attention to the extreme aggressive behavior made my client feel unsafe at work.

When we witness an act of aggression, brain cells called mirror neurons recreate that incident in our own brain.  When we witness the horrors of war, or natural disasters such as the recent devastation in Japan, our brain registers a smaller version of the trauma.  Our mirror neurons stimulate compassion that motivates us to want to help others.  We humans depend on social relationships for support,  comfort and companionship.  One aggressive employee can disrupt the entire operation of a company and it’s underlying social structure.  Aggression also harms the aggressor.  I offer a few suggestions to stop workplace aggression and disarm the Dwight Shrute in your workplace.

Sweat the Small Stuff

When your Dwight ridicules a co-worker in a meeting, take action as soon as possible.  Low level verbal aggression, left unchecked, tends to escalate.  Take Dwight aside and require him to apologize and rephrase his remarks using respectful language.   Social scientists found evidence to support what they call The Broken Window Theory.  They found you can prevent and lower the rates of vandalism in a community by fixing the low level problems, namely the broken windows, quickly.  Punishing vandals and repairing the damage quickly creates and maintains a social norm that contributes to a better behaved society. (Critics refuted some assumptions of this theory.  However, managers who set and enforce appropriate social norms can prevent much bad behavior).    When leaders address low level problems quickly, they set a standard for the norms of the workplace.  While this takes more time than you want to spend on the front end, it saves hours of time and lots of money on the back end if you face a workplace violence claim against your company.

Listen to the Whiners

Every workplace possesses at least one annoying whiner.  This person shares their irritation about the front desk clerks  perfume, complains about the uncomfortable workstation and fumes over food stolen from the company refrigerator.  While we feel tempted to avoid the constant barrage of complaints, this person often can be the canary in the coal mine warning of potential  disasters.  Many workplace conflicts begin with minor slights and silly discomforts.  Uncomfortable workstations can lead to injuries.  Physical pain makes people cranky and aggressive.  Perfume allergies can effect the breathing of some sensitive people and make them feel negative emotions toward the offender.  When someone with diabetes or special dietary considerations finds their food missing from the refrigerator that can provoke a hostile incident.  When management addresses these issues and with policy standards and enforcement, it lowers the social stress and makes aggression less likely.

Work at Play

Occasionally bring an attitude of playfulness into the workplace.  A bulletin board where employees can post jokes and cartoons, a corner of the lunch room with a sponge ball and mini basketball hoop, employee awards parties and other fun activities increase morale.  Encourage posts on Rainn Wilson’s inspiring  Soul Pancake blog.  Occasional shows of random appreciation, particularly if combined with a little fun, will reset the brain, buffer the negative effects of stress, and make people feel better.  Happier employees are less likely to behave aggressively.
Managers feel a lot of pressure in this economy to produce more with less.  That pressure often makes managers even more impatient with the complainers and bullies in the workplace.  A little bit of early intervention can help both managers and employees feel more effective, productive and successful.  If you need help with a workplace issue,  feel free to contact us.  We would love to help you achieve a happier and healthier workplace.

Photo courtesy of The Cleveland Kid