Aggressive behavior seems incompatible with the workplace. Showing aggression means showing your worst self and letting your emotions win; it is the exact antithesis of professionalism.
Entrepreneurs, teachers, healthcare professionals, and business school students learn early on to keep their cool in tense situations and not to take other people’s frustrating and offensive actions personally. However, even the most experienced and most emotionally intelligent professional is only a human being. If you witness abusive and violent behavior in your workplace, it is impossible to deny that it is disruptive to the work environment.
If you are in a management role, it is your responsibility to prevent aggression in the workplace and to respond appropriately to it if and when it occurs. This is not an easy task.
Unless you are a therapist for people with disruptive behavior disorders or a social worker or professional mentor to young people considered at high risk for criminal and aggressive behavior, you probably have little to no training on how to deal with aggression in the workplace. You might not even realize that troublesome behaviors that you witness at your workplace meet the definition of aggression.
Professionals in many industries can benefit from learning more about what causes aggressive behavior and about effective responses to aggression, including de-escalation and proactive approaches to conflict management.
Aggression Is More Than Just Violent Behavior
When a lot of us hear the word “aggression,” a very narrow set of actions comes to our minds. In the absence of any context to indicate otherwise, many of us assume that “aggression” refers specifically to physical violence.
Some people also assume that aggression, in the sense of a tendency toward violence, is a stable, or even innate personality characteristic. In other words, they assume that some individuals are naturally aggressive people, while others are not. This is, at best, an oversimplification, and at worst, a misconception.
The Main Kinds of Aggressive Behavior
Aggression is an action, not a feeling. If you ask someone who is behaving aggressively how he or she feels or felt before or while engaging in aggression, the person might say that he or she felt angry, depressed, hurt, guilty, frustrated, or afraid.
In other words, many different emotions can manifest themselves as aggressive behavior which can lead to almost any action or pattern of behavior that intentionally causes physical harm to a person or animal, destruction of property, or emotional hurt.
These are some of the main kinds of aggression:
- Physical aggression
- Verbal aggression
- Relational aggression
- Hostile aggression
- Passive aggression
It is possible for more than one type of aggression to occur in the same context, or even between the same two individuals.
Physical aggression includes actual, attempted, or symbolic physical violence. It is the most noticeable type of aggression.
Physical aggression often occurs after other types of aggression escalate. When it occurs in conjunction with other types of antisocial behavior, it can be a sign of a serious underlying problem, and if it is not addressed, it could escalate into even more dangerous acts of physical violence and violent crime.
Manifestations of Physical Aggression
Physical altercations are rare in most workplaces. When was the last time that you saw one coworker punch or slap another? If it ever happened, it is probably one of many stories you now tell your friends about the worst job you ever had.
Some aggressive behaviors still count as physical aggression, even if they don’t involve two people coming to blows. The following are possible manifestations of physical aggression in the workplace:
- Yelling or speaking in a threatening tone of voice
- Getting too close to someone, in order to intimidate them, even without making physical contact
- Intentionally damaging or destroying property, such as punching a wall or kicking a photocopy machine
Some workplace situations are so stressful that no one is surprised to see people lose their tempers. For example, the New York Stock Exchange and the kitchens of five-star restaurants are notorious for being pressure cooker situations. Observing aggressive behaviors on a frequent basis can desensitize you to them.
If people openly express their anger in your workplace, it will eventually start to seem normal, no matter how unpleasant it is. It is possible though to reduce stress and control aggression even in a work environment where rage is the lingua franca.
This is one of the most common types of aggression. Almost everyone has behaved in a verbally aggressive way at some point in their lives.
Even the most mild-mannered people, the ones who seem to have no aggressive tendencies whatsoever, express their emotions in words sometimes, even when they do it without raising their voices. Negative affect increases aggression, and it usually manifests itself verbally before it escalates into more serious types of aggression.
The following are some examples of verbally aggressive behavior:
- Yelling, shouting, or screaming
- Using profane or abusive language
- Personal insults
- Verbal threats
Most types of aggression that take place in the workplace are verbal in nature. For example, disagreements between a customer and an employee often escalate into verbal confrontations where the parties raise their voices and exchange insulting remarks.
Impulsive vs. Instrumental Aggression
By another categorization scheme, we can classify aggressive acts as impulsive aggression or instrumental aggression.
Impulsive aggression is when someone gets frustrated in the moment and loses his or her temper. It is often a result of poor emotion regulation.
It is difficult to share a workplace with someone who is prone to angry outbursts, in much the way that it is no fun to drive with someone who has road rage. The good news is that it is relatively easy to learn to regulate your emotions.
It is not possible to remove all sources of frustration from your life or your work, but it is possible to respond to them in healthier ways. If managers notice that employees are frequently getting so frustrated that they behave angrily, then this could be a sign that you should change some aspects of how the workplace operates.
These changes are relatively easy to make; better leadership communication will reduce frustration among your employees.
The other type of aggression is instrumental aggression. Instrumental aggression can take the form of relational aggression, such as bullying, harassment, malicious rumors, or gaslighting.
Another type of relational aggression is when a coworker subtly tries to push your buttons in ways that others will not notice, with the goal of creating aggressive responses that appear to be due to your lack of emotional regulation rather than due to your coworker’s efforts to provoke you.
It can also take the form of passive aggression, such as making sarcastic comments or guilt trips. Instrumental aggression is premeditated aggression. A coworker can be perfectly pleasant to your face but then sabotage your work through their words or actions when you are not present.
How to Deal with Impulsive Aggression in The Workplace
If impulsive aggression is a frequent occurrence in your workplace, then this is a sign that negative emotions are widespread in your work environment. Incidents of impulsive aggression can predict future aggression because of a vicious cycle of negative feelings.
Even though it is not as simple as not making one person trigger aggression, it is fairly easy to be the change you want to see in a workplace where negative emotions, and therefore expressions of frustration, are widespread.
Adjust Your Management Style
When the main causes of aggression come down to ordinary workplace stress, you can remedy this problem by making wise management decisions. A high-responsibility, low-control management style can reduce workplace stress and make your employees feel more confident and relaxed.
Let employees know about deadlines far in advance and then let them manage their work as they choose so that they can finish their work on time. If possible, circulate a shared calendar where employees can update their progress on their projects. This way, it is easier to know when someone needs help, and you can talk to them about it one-on-one.
On the one hand, you as a manager make your expectations clear. Meanwhile, you are also not constantly interrupting your employees’ work to micromanage them.
Why Instrumental Aggression in The Workplace is The Worst
No matter the root causes of aggression, instrumental aggression is a much more serious problem. Negative emotions can cause anyone to behave aggressively if they are stressed and frustrated enough.
Instrumental aggression involves much more consistent intent to harm someone. If you lose your temper and yell at a coworker, you will probably regret it immediately and apologize to the coworker the next time you see him or her.
By contrast, if instrumental aggression is a frequent problem in your workplace, then it means that employees are putting more effort into antagonizing each other than they are into their work.
They are measuring their success in terms of the negative emotions that they are able to provoke in others. Instrumental aggression is usually a pattern of behavior, rather than an isolated incident.
Consequences of Dealing with Instrumental Aggression
You can recover from a shouting match by apologizing sincerely and then having a calm conversation about the work-related problem that led to the disagreement. By contrast, bullying and other forms of instrumental aggression can lead to lawsuits over workplace harassment.
In the worst cases, employees subjected to instrumental aggression may leave the workforce entirely, due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Another reason that instrumental aggression is worse is that people who engage in impulsive aggression at work usually don’t want to change their behavior. They know that physical fighting and losing your temper at work are inappropriate and that other people notice it.
By contrast, people who engage in instrumental aggression know that they are doing it, and by the time someone complains about it, it has usually been going on for a long time. Unless you are a mental health professional well versed in theoretical and methodological considerations, it is very difficult to prevent subsequent aggression of the same nature and by the same person.
Where Does Aggression Come From?
Many different physiological and environmental factors can contribute to increased aggression. Aggression is a natural, perhaps even ubiquitous, part of human and animal behavior.
Witnessing aggressive acts by other people can influence aggression on your part. For example, a study in the Journal of Psychiatry concluded that when parents spank their children or use other forms of corporal punishment as a form of discipline, the children are more likely to engage in subsequent aggressive behavior.
This indicates that innate aggressive tendencies are not the only possible cause of child-aggressive behavior. Rather, witnessing early physical aggression can adversely affect interpersonal affective behavior.
This is true not only if the child himself or herself is the target of violence, but also if the children witness domestic violence in their households. Children who are exposed to domestic violence, even if they are not on the receiving end of it, are more likely to behave violently in adolescence and adulthood unless they learn to do otherwise.
Hormones and Health
Furthermore, sometimes hormones influence aggression. For example, the male sex hormone testosterone affects aggression. This is one possible explanation for why a disproportionate number of impulsive violent crimes are committed by adolescent boys or by young men in their late teens.
The fact that testosterone levels in adolescent males are so high, combined with the fact that young people have little experience managing their own intense emotions means that teens sometimes respond aggressively to situations where adults would take a more thoughtful approach.
Despite this, it would be a mistake to attribute someone’s aggressive actions to personal characteristics or the person’s background. No one is destined to become a violent person. All of us, with our great diversity of genetic and environmental variations, can learn to manage conflict in a healthy manner, such that violence in the workplace is not even a possibility.
Aggressive Behavior Doesn’t Belong in The Workplace
In spite of all the biological and emotional causes that make aggression evolutionarily adaptive, all managers can agree that harmful aggressive actions do not belong in the workplace. It is in the interest of managers, employees, and human resources departments to learn de-escalation techniques and conflict management strategies.
Avoid the Most Obvious Aggression Triggers
In almost any workplace, it is possible to run into stressful situations that make it difficult to regulate emotions. Despite this, some work environments seem to breed aggression, and these are very unpleasant places to work.
For example, you may have heard about lawsuits by former employees who sued their former employers after a tenure of employment characterized by persistent harassment and bullying. Many former employees who have filed claims about an alleged sexual assault by a coworker have described a workplace culture that seemed to have an aggression-inhibiting influence on its employees. Some plaintiffs have described it as a “frat house” culture.
For example, some activities can act as aggression triggers, leading to a temporary increase in risk for aggressive behavior. Observing aggressive sports brings out the aggressive side in some people. You might know someone who is ordinarily mild-mannered, but who turns into a completely different person when he watches sports.
Likewise, some people show their aggressive side when they play violent video games. As is becoming increasingly obvious, talking about one’s own political beliefs, especially about controversial issues, is an aggressive trigger, and it often generates very negative feedback from interlocutors.
Drinking alcohol increases aggression even more reliably than any of the other aforementioned aggression triggers. Some people can keep their cool while watching sports, playing video games, or discussing controversial political issues, as long as they are sober, but consuming alcohol increases aggression and turns them into angry drunks.
Now imagine a workplace where television sets play boxing matches, football games, and the 24-hour news cycle and are hooked up to video game controllers, and where alcohol flows freely, and you have the perfect breeding ground for bullying, discord, and violence. It is not an environment that encourages people to control aggressive behaviors.
Preventing Violent Behavior in the Workplace
Some jobs are inherently frustrating. Likewise, you never know what situations at home and out in the world are stressing people out, making them more likely to react angrily and aggressively to an apparently minor problem at work.
You cannot control the stressors that people are experiencing at work. However, your workplace should be free of practices that increase the risk of aggressive behavior, such as excessive alcohol consumption. You should also establish procedures for stopping disagreements and tense situations from escalating into physical altercations.
For example, customers sometimes become belligerent toward cashiers and sales clerks, often for reasons that are outside the control of the affected employees. The risk that an employee will be a victim of violent crime is greater if the employee is the only one working at the time.
For example, gas station clerks who work alone at night often have a glass partition separating them from customers, and they tend to work with one hand holding the phone, so they can call 911 if a customer threatens them or tries to rob the store. If your workplace is not in an isolated location, and if you are not desperately understaffed, it is a good idea to have more than one employee on duty at the same location during all the times when the business is open to the public.
Simply knowing that other people are watching is enough to inhibit behavioral tendencies toward aggression in most people. No matter how negative feelings might make someone feel irritable and ready to snap, the fear of looking like a jerk, a bully, or a spoiled brat is often enough to stop angry customers from making threats or throwing temper tantrums.
De-Escalating Tense Situations With Angry Customers
Most customers do not become physically violent with employees, but less harmful aggressive actions, such as using abusive language toward the employees, are prevalent. This verbal aggression is hurtful enough to interfere with employees’ job performance and morale.
Therefore, employees who deal directly with customers should learn to deal appropriately with human aggression when they are on the receiving end of it.
Employees should stay calm, whenever possible when dealing with angry customers. They should not interrupt and should do their best not to show their own frustration. They should, however, voice their discomfort with the customer behaving in an abusive and intimidating way toward them.
If they can easily solve the problem the customer is complaining about, they should do it. If the only way to resolve the problem is to refer the customer to another employee, they should do that, too.
If the employee truly cannot solve the problem, then the employee should not let the customer draw them into a long, circular argument that goes nowhere. This could mean enlisting the help of coworkers to call you to help them with an allegedly urgent task to facilitate the end of the discussion.
Using the HEARD Method to De-Escalate Customer Complaints in Person or By Phone
If you work in the customer service department, then the main duty of your job is to respond to complaints from customers. This means that every customer who contacts you is contacting you about a problem, and some of them are already angry and frustrated.
Your job always involves conflict, and it makes you, as the first point of contact about the customer’s complaint, an easy target for aggression. Don’t let your own aggression explain what you should do or influence your actions. Instead, play the long game.
The HEARD method is a multi-step process for de-escalating situations where someone is angry. HEARD stands for hear, empathize, acknowledge, resolve, and diagnose. You might wonder why it makes sense for customer service agents to go through three preliminary steps before they resolve the problem, especially if it has a simple solution, but using the HEARD method is in keeping with the best practices of customer service.
Hear What the Customer Is Saying, Even If You Have Heard It Before
The first step in the HEARD process is to hear what the customer wants to tell you. This sounds simple, but it actually takes more practice than you might imagine. It is natural to want to interrupt when you are sure you can quickly solve the problem. It is also not easy to sit through an angry tirade, which is what you might get from a frustrated customer.
It is important to give the customer a chance to speak first, though. The customer will appreciate it if you listen.
Sometimes just being able to say the problem out loud will make the customer feel better. Sometimes open discussion of a frustrating matter has the calming effect you need to be able to help the customer move forward.
Likewise, timing is everything. If a customer service rep listens to a customer explain a problem from beginning to end and then says, “Yes, that’s a common problem,” the customer will feel relieved that the customer service representative has plenty of experience reliably solving problems like this one.
If the customer gets midway through the first sentence, and the customer service rep says, “Yes, this is a common problem,” the customer will feel that the customer service rep is being dismissive and rude. Therefore, the customer will feel more frustrated, and the situation will escalate instead of de-escalating.
Empathize With the Person’s Feelings
The next step of the HEARD method is to empathize. You should show that you know that the person is frustrated and upset. No matter the reasons for the person’s frustration, frustration is normal.
Does the brain influence aggression? It definitely does. It is hard to control your anger when you are hungry and tired. Conversely, most social animals inhibit impulsive responses when they feel that they have social support. By empathizing with an angry customer, you are showing that you are on the same side, if not in your professional capacity, then as a human being.
Empathy is part of being human, but it is more challenging than you might think to show empathy toward an angry customer. Because customer service reps are so often the target of the triggered displaced aggression of customers, behavioral and brain sciences predict that many customer service reps will behave defensively after listening to a customer rant at length about a problem with a simple and obvious solution.
When displaced aggression occurs, you should take a deep breath and think of the person across the counter from you or at the other end of the phone line as a human being. No matter where you are, we are all members of the human race, and we all feel the same feelings at different times for different reasons.
The best way to de-escalate by showing empathy is to repeat back the other person’s views on the problem in your own words but add as little of your own interpretation as possible. From an evolutionary psychological perspective, it makes us feel calm when other people understand our feelings.
Acknowledge the Problem and Your Role in Causing or Perpetuating It
The “A” in HEARD originally stood for apologize, but even in situations where it does not make sense for you to apologize, since you did not create the problem, you should at least acknowledge that it is your responsibility to solve it. It is often appropriate to apologize on behalf of your organization, even if you are not personally at fault for the problem.
After you listen, empathize, and acknowledge, you can be sure that the customer knows that you are not blaming them and that you are willing to help. This sounds time-consuming, and it is, but it is worthwhile. If you invest the time to de-escalate the aggressive behavior, then the customer will be more willing to listen to you when you propose solutions, even if the solutions you recommend require some effort on the customer’s behalf.
Resolve the Problem That the Customer Called to Complain About
The first three steps of the HEARD method involve de-escalation, and clearing the air to make room for conflict resolution. Every mediator knows that mediation is only successful once the participants stop perpetuating their cycle of aggressive behavior and get into the frame of mind to resolve their conflicts.
Explain the solution as concisely as you can, and do not place blame on the customer. Blame is an aggression trigger, so blaming the customer can easily undo all of the de-escalation work you have just done.
If you are interacting with the customer by phone, then also email the information you have provided about solving the problem. This way, if the customer does not remember everything you said, he or she can reread the email, instead of just getting frustrated all over again and then blaming you.
If you are interacting with the customer in person, give the customer a business card or contact number that the customer can call if he or she runs into more questions while trying to implement the solution.
Diagnose the Root Cause of the Problem
Before you end the call, or before the customer leaves your store, give advice about what the customer should do to prevent the problem from happening again. If the problem was caused by a party other than the customer, then promise the customer that you will follow up with this other party.
In the latter case, the only way to prevent the problem from recurring is to talk about it with your manager, the technical department, or whoever else could have prevented the problem. If possible and if appropriate, contact the customer to notify him or her about the outcome of your follow-up with the other party.
Tips for Preventing Aggression in Your Workplace
Conflict management is business management and managers in your organization should have a wide range of de-escalation strategies at their disposal.
You should also create a workplace culture where employees feel comfortable talking to managers about their feelings, struggles, and frustrations related to work before things get out of hand. This means removing the stigma against mental illness, and it also means not placing the blame on workers themselves when they must work in difficult conditions or when their job description requires them to do the impossible.
De-Escalation of Workplace Aggression Begins With You
Even if you are the least aggressive person you know, you still have an important role to play in preventing workplace aggression and de-escalating conflicts among your coworkers, customers, and stakeholders in your organization. Everyone in a management role should get specialized training in de-escalation and conflict management. Most of us do not learn nearly enough about these matters during our formal education.
Contact Defuse About De-Escalation Training for Managers and Professionals
If you want to improve your de-escalation skills so that you can apply them in the workplace, Defuse is the logical place to start. Through our in-person and online courses, you can learn to leverage your emotional intelligence to stay calm and respond constructively when it seems like everyone around you, from customers to coworkers, is angry and losing their temper. Contact Defuse today to find out more about your course offerings.