CXO

Dealing with a rise in workplace aggression

I suspect it comes as no surprise to

anyone that my team did pretty much everything I hoped for this week.

Some people tell me that's because I have low expectations. As a

general rule, though, I suspect it's more because I tell them what I

want and stay out of their way while they do what needs doing. It's

an odd concept for some folks but it works for me.

Their focus on what needs doing gave me

time to think about some other things. Like, for example, when did

naked aggression and even borderline assault become normal business

practices? When did we all appear, collectively, to say “You know,

it's ok for us to behave in a way which would make our third grade

teachers give us a swift swat in the pants?”

I do not want to bemoan the loss of

some mythical golden age of business when men wore nice suits and

spoke politely; women dressed well, and children ate their broccoli

without complaint. Nor am I claiming to not participate; I act as

badly as everyone else at times. Yet, stepping back, what can I do

as a leader and what should I do as a recipient and participant in

the problem to effect a solution?

First I have to define my terms. What

I'm talking about here breaks down into two parts. One one level we

have a lot of attempts at social intimidation: displays of power over

others, threats, outright rudeness, and more logical fallacies than I

can shake a stick out. On another level we have raw animal

aggression: shouting, violation of personal space, staring contests,

and behavior best referred to by its old name of “looming”,

though I think current fashion tends to call it presence.

Personally I give people the benefit of

the doubt when it comes to physical aggression. People generally

don't realize how close they stand, how loudly they shout, and when

they engage in staring contests. When the adrenalin gets pumping,

which it sometimes does in meetings or discussions, many people lose

control of their physical presence. Those who don't generally get

promoted to leadership positions, but that's a whole different story.

It's only after repeated, blatant examples that I start to suspect

the person honestly intends to bully me.

Social intimidation requires very

careful consideration before I give it a pass, though. I'm

absolutely certain some people do it unconsciously. For most people,

though, it takes a lot of work to arrange and seize the circumstances

allowing for social intimidation, so I tend to believe these

behaviors stem from adaptation to the environment. Somewhere,

somehow, a leader allowed these behaviors to take root and flourish.

He allowed them to succeed, knowing they were short term approaches

incapable of producing either lasting change or lasting affect.

Understanding the problem, though,

doesn't necessarily get me any closer to a solution. I cannot

control the behavior of others. As amusing as it might be in the

movies, I honestly don't think I would want to. I have enough

problems dealing with my responsibility for my own actions and those

of my team; I don't think I could deal with controlling others for

any length of time.

Anyway. Response is, always, divided

into two parts as well. In the first part you deal expressly with

tactics, or how you deal with the immediate situation. In the second

you deal with strategy, or how you intend to resolve the

circumstances so the situation never occurs in the first place. Any

response containing just one element will inevitably fail in the long

run.

Strategically I'm focused on making the

behaviors irrelevant. Not punishing them, or making them costly, but

completely irrelevant to the circumstances in which we work. Once

the behavior becomes something outside of the system, rather than a

part of it, it will either cease or the individuals engaged in it

will find another place where they can lord it over everyone.

Tactically I focus on stillness. This

doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. I choose to not

react, refocus the confrontation on the business at hand, or simply

walk away. I suspect others see that later as submitting or a sign

of submission. Really, though, I'm more focused on getting what

needs doing done than I am on playing games with other people's

emotions and their lives. If walking away defuses the situation and

allows work to get done I'll do it, happily. My ego and my

masculinity source in things other than my workplace dominance.

Much to ponder there is. Think about it over the week, I will.

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