By Susan Adams, Forbes Staff
Michael Staver, a Jacksonville, Fla. corporate and executive coach who used to work as a psychologist in a mental hospital, recalls the time a marketing director lost it at a firm where Staver was coaching. The man, known for sporadic outbursts, approached the receptionist and demanded to see the CEO. The receptionist said that was impossible because the boss was out of the office until the following day. “What are you talking about?” demanded the marketing director. “We have to meet; he knows there is a deadline!”
The receptionist suggested the man calm down. In response, he swiped his hand across her desk, knocking everything to the floor. Then he grabbed a Mont Blanc pen and flung it across the room, hitting a glass partition and chipping it.
Though no one was physically injured, says Staver, this was a typical example of violence in the workplace, a chronic if thankfully not commonplace problem that sometimes spins out of control and results in death. Like the 28-year-old Spanish teacher who was fired from Episcopal High School in Jacksonville on Tuesday morning, and then returned to the school that afternoon with an AK-47 in a guitar case, and killed the head of the school, and himself. Staver, who wrote the 1995 book, How to Defuse Anger and Calm People Down, says it’s almost certain that the Spanish teacher has some sort of psychiatric disorder, and he guesses it would have been very difficult to know that he was likely to commit murder.
But Staver, who has been coaching and speaking about workplace anger management since 1992, says there are ways to detect that a colleague will engage in less dramatic forms of violence, like the marketing director who hurled the pen. It’s also possible that keeping on the alert for signs of mounting tension could serve to help a troubled colleague before he gets to the point of committing a violent act.
Staver breaks the escalation to violence down into three stages: an initial event that triggers anger, the escalation of emotions, and the crisis or violent act. Sometimes these occur in rapid succession; at other times they unfold over a long period. Here’s what he thinks employees should watch for:
- Excessive complaining or whining: This can be the first warning signal that a co-worker or colleage has had a triggering event that might escalate to anger and violence, especially if he is usually content at work.
- Withdrawal frow others: A co-worker who completely retreats into his shell could be demonstrating that he is having trouble coping.
- Variation from typical behavior: If your colleague is usually reserved and introverted, and suddenly starts chattering and socializing, or if an extrovert retreats and grows silent, that can be a signal that something is wrong.
- Obsessive thought patterns or conversations: If an employee starts ranting against “the machine” or talking incessantly about the unfairness of the world, it could be a warning sign.
- Dramatic and unreasonable demands: When a worker becomes impatient and insists on an immediate response when he knows a task takes time, like the marketing director who demanded to see the CEO immediately, such behavior could demonstrate that he is troubled.
- Personal insults: If an otherwise respectful colleague flies off the handle and attacks, that can mean his anger is building.
- Threats: It may seem obvious, but Staver says this is the most potent sign that violence could occur. If your co-worker starts saying, specifically, that he wants to hurt someone, that’s a red flag, he says, especially if the person expresses a plan, the intent to carry it out, and the means to see it through.
Staver has suggestions for each stage. Though it may be counter-intuitive, he says do not negate or disagree with a colleague’s seemingly irrational thoughts or behavior. If your colleague is complaining excessively, listen to what he has to say. Don’t try to talk him out of it. Avoid clichés, like “everything happens for a reason.” You can empathize and validate someone’s feelings without agreeing with him. Never tell someone who is upset to calm down. That will only make him escalate. Staver likes what he calls “suggestive solutions.” For the marketing director, that could have meant the receptionist saying, “since the CEO isn’t here and you can’t talk to him, let’s give you the earliest possible time to meet.” If the person is getting upset in a group situation, it can be helpful to move away from the crowd. Once the anger has escalated to a threat, Staver says, the most important thing to do is to report it to human resources. Many people think that reporting a threat will make it worse, but HR people are trained to deal with these situations.
It can also be helpful to buy time, which may help the person calm down. In the case of the marketing director, the receptionist could have said, “Why don’t you give me 10 minutes and I’ll try to track down the CEO?” Then she could have gone back to the man and said, “I know you’re frustrated and I agree you should meet with the CEO as soon as possible. Let’s schedule a time.”
Staver says he encountered a man recently who was spinning out of control during a break in an anger management seminar Staver was leading. During the break the man, whose eyes were dilated, started ranting at Staver that he didn’t belong in the meeting and it was his boss who was at fault. Staver asked the man to step aside from the group and said he knew the most frustrating thing is feeling that things are out of control. Staver also told the man he could leave if he chose. After the second half of the talk, the man approached Staver again. This time he was smiling and happy.
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