We all want smooth workplace experiences, where everyone has the information they need and works well with everyone else to get the job done. But real-life workplaces feature employees with conflicting personalities, imperfect communication skills, and external pressures from financial or medical issues. If left unchecked, these stressors can surface as employee aggression in the workplace.
From highly visible shouting matches to subtle sabotage, employee aggression can take a large toll on workplace productivity while impacting an organization’s reputation. But before you can defuse these issues, you need to diagnose the cause, read the signs, and personalize an action plan.
Poor Coping Responses
According to Harvard professor and leadership coach Susan David, most people who use employee aggression to express their unhappiness do so because they don’t have the emotional skills to process their feelings. She categorizes these people into two separate categories: suppressing and ruminating.
People who suppress their emotions prefer to ignore their problems and focus on something else. But emotions are persistent, so failing to resolve issues leads these people to spend more mental energy avoiding their problems than it might take to solve them and move on. This leads to stress, and eventually an outburst.
The other poor coping response is called ruminating. The term ruminating comes from agriculture; it’s the process where cows and other grass-eating animals burp up their food to chew on it again to help digest everything. Psychology borrowed this term for the mental version of the process, where people bring up past experiences again and again and chew them over in their minds.
Brief rumination is healthy; it’s the process that helps us remember not to repeat mistakes. But when employees ruminate on how unfair their work situation is or how Mike in accounting never approves the funding they need, or how everyone else on the team is friends and never invites them to lunch, the jerks . . . well, let’s just say that excessive rumination can turn small frictions into big problems.
With both of these poor coping mechanisms, the frustration keeps building until an emotional outburst happens. But while suppressive employees try to keep it together, ruminating employees fan the flames. Left to build over time, some employees may consider their quick temper as an innate part of their personality, or even a sign of strength. But whether it comes from family history or individual circumstances, expressing anger through aggression in the workplace remains counterproductive and destructive.
Types of Outbursts
Just as everyone processes frustration differently, everyone also has a different way to express it. You might have an argument that escalates until voices rise and tempers flare. You might have a ruminating employee continually complaining about the issues he’s chewing on without offering any solutions to the problem. You might have someone working so hard at suppressing how she feels that she starts stonewalling requests from the growing list of co-workers who bother her.
Other employees might turn to passive-aggressive tactics like protesting with long lunches, arriving late to meetings, or going over their supervisor’s head in an attempt to make them appear incompetent. Employee aggression can also spread unnoticed through email chains and social media, silently creating real divisions in teams, departments, even whole organizations.
Reading the Signs
When it comes to aggression, prevention leads to much better results than trying to repair relationships after an outburst. But many business environments lack the emotional openness to help employees express themselves. As David notes, getting to the bottom of negative work emotions involves three steps: recognizing emotions for what they are, understanding the cause of the emotion, and then managing the situation that caused the emotion.
Implementing regular one-on-one feedback sessions can help with each of these steps. When employees and managers have a standing appointment every few weeks to talk about life, work, and the future, it provides an outlet for frustration and an opportunity for connection. This direct approach works better at uncovering issues than reading body language or tone of voice.
Over time, managers come to understand their employees’ concerns and employees understand how their manager is working to resolve their issues. Employees learn that their manager will act with emotional maturity when they have an issue they need to discuss. And when problems don’t have a quick solution, knowing that their manager understands their frustration helps employees keep working toward a solution, rather than suppressing, ruminating, or gossipping.
Responding to Aggression
If the worst case scenario occurs and you have an incident of employee aggression, it’s important to have a quick, direct response that resolves the issue rather than escalating it. It’s also important to make sure that your response meets legal requirements, especially with cases of physical assault or sexual harassment.
With open aggression, most of the time there are one or more people on the receiving end. After communicating privately with the offender, it’s important to let those on the receiving end know what steps you’re taking to resolve the issue so that a problem with one employee doesn’t turn into a reputation for poor management. You can also encourage the offending employee to explain the how the situation escalated and how he or she plans on changing in the future. This tactic can be more effective than saying “Sorry I messed up, let’s just move on,” as “let’s just move on” is basically an invitation to suppress or ruminate.
It takes time, consistency, and openness to develop work relationships based on effective feedback. But making these investments in your managers and employees pays off in smoother workdays, better retention, and a company culture free of employee aggression.