Seek and Defuse: How to Recognize Anger in the Workplace

by Mike Staver

Seek_and_DefuseWorkplace violence in the U.S. is a persistent and dangerous problem. How bad is it? A statistic from the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that homicide is the fourth-leading cause of occupational injuries. And it is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace.

But the real tragedy is, so many of these violent incidents could be avoided if employees and leaders understood how to recognize violence triggers and how to defuse them in the workplace. Most people who act out violently at work indicate what’s going to happen through their words and behavior beforehand — and when people can recognize the warning signs, they can do more to prevent these terrible situations.

Although most people believe that violence occurs when someone is angry about certain circumstances, the truth is, it is triggered when someone gets angry about what he or she believes about the circumstances. When a person gets angry, it’s because at least one of three primary triggers is in place. The person feels, “This is unfair,” “This is out of my control” and/or “This is personal; it’s happening to me.”

When these factors are present, they can manifest themselves in many ways. The angry employee might simply have a drop in performance level. He or she might make threatening comments to another employee or about the company in general, or, in extreme circumstances, resort to worse violence. The more intensely the person feels these factors, the worse the violence can get. Anyone who sees these triggers in a co-worker or employee should be very concerned.

Of course, the key to preventing workplace violence is knowing what to do when an employee indicates he might be susceptible to these triggers or is displaying other warning signs — such as bullying other co-workers, substance abuse, frequently discussing marital or other non-professional problems or making idle threats, among others.

First and foremost, take all warning signs very, very seriously. Secondly — and this is just as important — report it right away! Far too often, co-workers don’t report these incidents. It happens for many reasons: They believe the popular myth that people who make threats don’t act on them, they don’t want to seem like alarmists, they fear they’ll become a target, or there isn’t a sufficient workplace safety and incident reporting system in place. But anyone who suspects something is wrong should report it right away. If the leadership at the organization isn’t taking it seriously, that person needs to go to the authorities.

That said, however, companies should not place the burden fully on employees. All organizations should make sure they have workplace violence policies in place, that all employees have a clear understanding of the policies, and that all employees know how to take action and what to expect when they do report an incident. Managers and leaders should also be well trained in how to defuse anger in the workplace and to recognize what kinds of situations are out of their control — and, in such cases, demand that law enforcement be involved. There is simply too much at risk to avoid taking these actions.

Mike Staver, CEO of The Staver Group, a national team of strategic business advisors and coaches, is the creator of the audio and video series 21 Ways to Defuse Anger and Calm People Down and author of Do You Know How to Shut Up? With more than 25 years’ experience, Staver is a frequent speaker to Fortune 500 companies and start-ups, and a confidential advisor to top-level executives and CEOs. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in psychology.

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