The Will to Kill: Leadership Behavior and Workplace Violence

I live in Arizona where on January 8, 2011, a young man shot and killed six people, and wounded 13 others including Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords. No one knows why he did this. There were more than 16,000 people murdered in the United States last year. We don’t know all of the reasons for all of these killings. Every year about 1,000 people are murdered at work. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 500,000 violent crimes occur in the workplace each year.[1]  Many of these crimes are committed by people outside the workforce such as crime suspects injuring police officers while resisting arrest, thieves robbing delivery personnel, taxi drivers, banks or convenience stores. But about 1/10 of them are committed by one employee against another. Several years ago, I was facilitating a leadership training workshop for a large, well-respected company.

One of the participants arrived at the class with his arm in a sling with a cast and bandages. I discovered that he was a supervisor who fired an employee. That employee went home got a pistol, returned to work and shot his supervisor right through the chest. I don’t know all of the details of the incident or much about the history of this individual. We cannot see into the minds of other people. We can see only what they do or say. We certainly don’t know if such training would have made any difference for him or for his supervisor. The supervisor was an excellent student who worked very hard to learn the skills. I hope that they will serve him well.

What does this have to do with leadership training?

Most programs that deal with workplace violence stress preparedness, security, screening, and quick response time, etc. These practices are indeed important. But no amount of screening or security will completely eliminate the threat of violence any more than another scanner at the airport will completely eliminate the threat of terrorism. There is also mounting evidence that leader behavior and workplace conditions contribute to the incidence of violent behavior. Or, stated the other way, that more team-oriented, supportive environments discourage such behavior. “The ASSE [American Society of Safety Engineers] white paper also recommends that a supportive, harmonious work environment be fostered which allows employees to be empowered and at the same time empathetic management skills should be encouraged, as authoritarian leadership styles tend to promote higher rates of on-the-job violence.” [2] Just as better screening and security won’t eliminate the threat, better leadership won’t solve the whole problem either. There are people with mental illnesses who will interpret every word from their manager as suspicious or malicious. There are criminals who will view any sign of empathy as a weakness to be exploited.

But, overall, a more supportive leadership style and work environment will be safer and more productive. Better listening skills and more constructive ways of dealing with poor performance will allow problems to be detected sooner, before they escalate. Most grievances do not suddenly appear from nowhere. Typically, they start small and grow as a result of indifference or inattention. Leaders who are trained and encouraged to pay attention to their team members and listen to what they say, will face fewer surprises. Leaders who are committed to win/win resolution of conflicts will find more support and fewer hostile employees on their team. Clearer, fairer, more immediate confrontation of non-productive, unacceptable behaviors will be viewed with less contempt than in-direct, or delayed responses. In fact, dealing with such behaviors early often prevents more serious problems later.

fix problems at work leadership training kill employees shootingEffective leadership won’t fix all of your problems. Good leadership training can, however, give your organization’s leaders some very specific skills that will help them create a more productive, supportive, and safe work environment. One client, a manufacturer of construction products, had a serious problem with grievances. The managers were processing more than 100 formal grievances per month. While there was no violence reported, but there were several incidences of sabotage. It takes little imagination to see how such an environment could easily grow into one in which people might justify some dramatic, violent act. Rather than treat the employees like enemies, this client began a campaign to change the climate of the organization.

The process included many elements, but the centerpiece was leadership training. Every employee (not just the managers and supervisors) attended the workshop that included in-depth training on listening, constructive confrontation with I-messages, and win/win conflict resolution. After 18 months, the rate of grievances fell to fewer than 10 per year. Per YEAR! That is, the managers were processing either no grievances at all or only one per month. A dramatic change! It is also interesting that the managers who used to complain that their people “dreamed up” bogus grievances just to “drive us crazy” now saw the importance of most of the grievances they were now receiving. In most cases, they sincerely made an effort to respond to the problem with a win/win solution. There are, of course, no guarantees. A good program won’t insure such dramatic changes but there is little doubt that these kinds of skills make a solid contribution to the creation of the kinds of workplaces where violence will be rare.

One of the outcomes of having leaders learn these skills is that they become more attuned to “signals” from their team members. Signals are subtle nonverbal indicators that the person is unhappy or frustrated or scared. They may be small changes in behavior like increased tardiness or absenteeism. They may make small mistakes in their work. They may be less responsive or talkative. The leaders will also learn how to respond to those signals without accepting responsibility for solving the employee’s problem for them. Leaders sometimes avoid listening because they believe that by doing so; they will assume responsibility for problems that they can’t solve. That is why you often hear managers and supervisors tell people to “leave their personal problems at home.” In effective leadership training, they learn to listen in a new way. The act of listening, especially what we call active listening, often helps to defuse the emotional level and help the person think more clearly about what they need to do. Having leaders who are more skilled at dealing with human emotions, being less scared of them, does much to foster a more human and encouraging environment. Emotions are an important part of the workplace but are often overlooked or avoided because leaders don’t have the tools to deal with them effectively. When ignored, these strong emotions are the ones that can, in some circumstances, lead to rage and unfortunate episodes of violence.

In Arizona, we are encouraged that Representative Giffords is recovering and may even return to her job in congress. The six who were killed will not have that chance. No one knows if a different environment, or different parental, teacher, or supervisory behavior would have made any difference to Jared Loughner, the murderer. But, we do know that such changes may make a difference to others in the future. Given, the other benefits of learning more supportive leadership skills, the potential for good is large and the investment seems quite small.

[1] Article in SFGate of the San Francisco Chronicle.
[2] EHS Today. “The American Society of Safety Engineers Urges Employers to Establish Workplace Violence Prevention Policies.” February 14, 2001.

Share this:

Learn more about L.E.T.