The gloves are off: Three ways to prevent workplace aggression

In the office, like any high-pressured environment, temperatures can rise and conflicting personalities can clash. Workplace aggression can be caused and exacerbated by any number of factors, many of which are part of regular business practice: working to deadlines, delivering important pitches and collaborating within a team of strong-willed individuals. But that doesn’t mean we simply have to accept it. Business leaders must be equipped with skills and know how to prevent such situations arising.

Workplace aggression can manifest in any number of subtle but equally disruptive ways. Some employees act passive-aggressively, arriving late to meetings or turning in subpar work, some internalise their aggression and suffer from mounting anxiety and stress, while others act out, using verbal and/or physical abuse to demean and intimidate colleagues.

Aggression in the workplace puts employees at risk, hinders productivity and can do irreparable damage to your company’s reputation. Here are three top tips to help prevent aggressive behaviours in the workplace, and make your business a more enjoyable and productive place to work.

Organise awareness and training sessions

No doubt the biggest cause of employee conflict is a result of poor employee morale, and that stems from both professional and personal stressors. Jon Denoris, who delivers corporate wellness programs for London businesses, explains how wellness programs can promote better mental health, which in turn reduces the likelihood of employees feeling more inclined towards aggressive behaviours.

He explains that arranging corporate wellness activities for your employees to take part in offers a welcome relief from the stress that mounts during the average work day. The benefits of corporate wellness programs aren’t just about physical fitness, but rather spending more time working on behavioural change and helping put in place complete lifestyle solutions for the benefit of all company employees. This includes working to reduce stress levels, improve morale and enhance general productivity.

Outside the office, corporate wellness programs can help employees tackle poor health, fitness and even substance abuse outside the workplace. In the workplace, they can also foster better team cohesion as a result of the bonding benefits business employees enjoy while taking part. Through associated gamification (friendly competition) and incentivisation, corporate wellness programs can stimulate high levels of engagement and get your team working together effectively.

Set up effective lines of communication 

Aggression thrives on inadequate communication. It’s also a factor in the wellbeing of employees, helping to diffuse tensions and clarify misunderstandings that can cause conflict to occur. But conflict, once ignited, is just as dangerously avoided: refusing to enter into a discussion of grievances and leaving things unsaid creates confusion and needless anxieties.

During one of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile gender discrimination cases, the claimant Ellen Pao told the court how her former employer, VC firm Kleiner Perkins, expected her to participate in an “interrupt-driven environment”, going so far as to offer employees coaching in how to go about intimidating others to get their point across. It was generally agreed that this policy had been responsible for a company culture that fostered high levels of workplace aggression.

Better ways to create an environment that is more open to effective communication involve making conversations more meaningful. One common method is using two-party sentences, such as “I would like your input on…” or “I would like us to talk about…”, to make for more dynamic conversation.

Don’t let conflict escalate into aggression

 Passive aggression is the most common form of workplace aggression, and despite it’s prevalence goes largely unchecked in environments where it’s not considered to be a problem—until it is. It is an employer’s responsibility to keep aggressive behaviours in check, and that means challenging workplace aggression wherever and whenever it occurs.

Petty conflicts can’t always be avoided, but nipping them in the bud means establishing clear codes of conduct. A company with established practices for working out complaints impartially, confidently and quickly is one that reassures its employees they are being heard. When the process for dealing with minor conflicts is clear and effective, it not only eases tensions but if complaints are actioned, can also bring about positive change for the better.

Acknowledging and making the most of grievances comes back to effective communication. In a TED talk on how best to avoid conflict, Margaret Heffernan shows us how good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates how the most productive teams aren’t echo chambers, but are made up of opponents who challenge each other to think more critically.

For an employer, preventing and then managing workplace aggression means paying special attention to the quality of relationships among members of a team, and taking adequate steps to support those relationships. Promoting employees’ wellness, facilitating effective communication and channelling conflicts into positive change can help minimise the risk factors of workplace aggression.

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