If a nation’s story is told in its headlines, our current chapter reads of fistfights on airplanes, berated restaurant staff, hospital workers in crisis, and upticks in workplace aggression. It’s a dark theme that speaks volumes about a country with a fragile social disposition. People weren’t all that calm before the pandemic —and now they’re even less so.
A year in isolation has caused parts of our brains to atrophy, affecting our social skills and reducing cognitive capacity, and making things more challenging for our re-entry into social settings. It’s not just awkward — according to one scientist, our social connections are actually “harder to construct,” which means our brains have to strain just to participate in previously easy interactions.
It’s normal for unused skills to get rusty, like how running is harder after healing a broken foot, and it takes consistency to get back to a comfortable pace. Similarly, it takes practice and consistency to rebuild social muscle. In an ideal world, it would be great to practice social re-entry in psychologically safe settings to rebuild cognitive skills as gradually as they atrophied.
Unfortunately, that’s not happening.
All indicators suggest that we’re in for another emotional chapter. Spoiler alert: The pandemic is not under control. Vaccines are less effective against the new, more contagious variants, and we’ll all eventually require boosters. People are facing vaccine mandates at work and in their communities. Mask mandates are coming back. There is even a possibility of another lockdown.
With tensions higher than ever, deescalation skills are urgently needed.
Why does this burden fall on laypeople?
Aggressive behavior can happen anywhere—in an elevator, on public transportation, in the warehouse, or over the phone with a customer. But what if it happens at the workplace? Some highly-trained managers and human resources professionals have expert conflict resolution skills, but those experts are relatively rare and may not always be around, especially in hybrid settings.
In fact, training on people skills is uncommon; per Fast Company, the average employee receives their first managerial role around age 30, but doesn’t receive their first managerial training on people skills until age 42. This lack of expertise puts organizations at risk, and every employee is at the helm of a ship heading towards an iceberg of workplace aggression.
Can’t I just call security or the police?
Calling for help is reactive, and only tackles part of the issue. A person involved in or witnessing conflict may call security, and if it’s not a remote location or multi-building campus, they may be able to respond promptly— but not before downstream emotional damage has affected observers. According to Brian Uridge, Director of Michigan Medicine Security, “the contagion of how one incident can raise anxiety and potential for additional incidents is significant, and under-addressed.”
Workplace aggression has downstream emotional effects. Because witnessing aggression can decrease business productivity, it’s worth trying to prevent. “Witnessing someone being verbally attacked can significantly affect us in unexpected ways,” says Noel Lipana, a Doctor of Social Work with research in moral injury. “Anxiety, fear, and moral trauma of observing something as a bystander can create a long-lasting and detrimental physiological response similar to experiencing an attack personally. Moreover, because it lingers is often more of an actual concern than physical harm.”
Aggressive behavior must be prevented and disrupted proactively and effectively.
What can you do?
The employees already involved in the conflict have the best chance of affecting the situation—and that can go positively or negatively. The first step is to get employees out of a default mode to escalate. Brains, by design, are built to get us out of trouble by generating hormones, fast. And if you’ve raised teenagers, you know how explosive that can be.
Our brains are designed to constantly scan for threats and respond with freeze, fight, or flight. Running away or knocking someone out are technically productive methods for dealing with a physical threat, but they’re tactically counterproductive for reducing social threat. We have to rewire the automated processes in our brains and train to actively reduce threats, and that takes cognitive capacity—something that declines when our brain perceives threat.
If you’ve flown in an airplane, you know the drill. “Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.” The same concept applies in an escalated situation—to be useful, the first person you have to de-escalate is yourself. Get your cognitive functioning to a useful place, then move into action.
From there, the magic happens when we quickly recognize the clear markers of what’s happening in conflict, and recall easy habits to apply. Listening and ‘letting people vent’ is not only an inadequate conflict resolution technique in most cases, but it fails to disrupt the situation and stop the cycle of observer contagion. Knowing the triggers that send people into a heightened physiological response that leads to aggressive behavior is essential in calming them down.
There are five domains that trigger people in the workplace; Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness, also known as the SCARFⓇ Model. Having this sticky meme for easy recall is helpful to rapid response when it counts.
That seems like a lot of effort.
Intentionally building new brain wiring sounds complicated—but just like returning to running after injury, it comes down to consistency and training. Workplace aggression is a productivity issue, a mental health issue, and an attrition issue. Those things matter. It’s worth the effort.
With the angst surrounding our day-to-day encounters—and, unfortunately, a lot of uncertainty still ahead—let there be no doubt of a need for de-escalation skills as we look to the future of work.
The people in your organization best equipped to de-escalate are the ones in daily contact with each other, and they deserve to have the skills to stay safe and keep aggressive behavior at bay. We have to intervene more than respond. If your workplace violence prevention strategy is to rely on the police and your corporate security team, you’ve already lost this battle.