Applications of Psychology to the Workplace: Developing Healthy Aggression (Part 1)

By Dr. John Weaver.

Early in my consulting career, the first organizations that hired me wanted help with conflict resolution. Aggressive impulses had gotten out of control and were damaging them. As a result of working with these companies, I became acutely aware of the need to develop cooperation and collaboration as a counter balance to the unchecked anger and subsequent destructive actions that accompanied this emotion. But there is more to the story than just working on control of aggressive impulses in the workforce.

Like many complex psychological processes, there is a range of aggression that is helpful, and too much or too little can be problematic. Finding this beneficial range is a combination of internal factors unique to each individual and to external factors that change with the organizational environment. If you are working with a psychologist to coach you to be effective with aggression, it will be necessary to look at both of these contexts.

The RISKS of aggression: These are not difficult to identify. Too much aggressive behavior can leave a wake of destruction in the workplace. In addition to the kind of non-productive conflict that cause organizations to find a psychologist to help the with conflict resolution, instances of workplace bullying (see David Yamada’s: Minding the Workplace blog), cheating, lying (see Dan Ariely’s: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty), and many other forms of incivility are examples of aggressive behavior that are damaging to the organization. This can be just one of the many reasons some employees do not trust their employers (see the recent APA Stress Survey Results). Overly aggressive practices may result in customers becoming disillusioned with an organization and its brand. And once trust is lost, it may be extremely difficult to get it back. Aggressive individuals can become so focused on self-serving goals that they act as if they have no regard for the impact their aggression has on the organization, on customers, or on other employees. In fact, when aggression is out of control the only goal may be to “win” at all costs, and even personal goals can be lost in the rush of emotion.

The REWARDS of aggression: All of this is true, but aggressiveness is also a highly valued character trait in business settings. Aggressiveness is assessed during pre-employment psychological assessments. Individuals are hired and promoted on the basis of their ability to aggressively address situations. Talented individuals who lack this drive may be left behind. In a recent biography written by Brent Schlender, Becoming Steve Jobs, Apple CEO Tim Cook says that Steve Jobs was right to yell at him the four or five times it occurred. (Of course this doesn’t mean that it is always acceptable.)

Aggression inclines a person toward action. It is a fundamental dimension of the drive that is necessary to become good at something, to continue to improve, and eventually to become great at it.

Perhaps this is why the top performers in organizations often possess high levels of of aggression. And maybe this is why some of them are such difficult people to get along with! There is a “relentlessness” to this quality. The aggressive individual is willing to take risks to achieve a goal that less aggressive people are unwilling to take. He or she meets obstacles and willingly expends extra energy to overcome them. He or she sees setbacks as sources of new learning rather than defeats. These are critical qualities for organizational success.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) uses the term “grit” in her research in educational settings, and notes that it is even more highly correlated with academic success than IQ scores. There have been fewer studies in the business world but it is likely that it is equally true that IQ is important for success but the willingness to aggressively and persistently pursue a goal is even more important.

When a person is aggressive at mild to moderate levels of intensity, he or she is also more inclined to pay close attention to details. While we would all like to be happy all the time, when we are happiest we are less likely to pay attention to details, according to research done by Forgas & Koch, found in the Handbook of Emotion and Cognition. (Those who are overwhelmed by their aggression are not able to attend to details either, as the emotion becomes too intense and begins to interfere with rational thought.)

I have come to believe that aggression – with appropriate awareness and control – is an important factor in the development of excellence. Like many psychological dimensions of organizational success, aggression can be wielded in a manner that is destructive and unhealthy but it can also be so feared that it results in an organization that is weak and unable to survive. It is finding the right proportion of aggressive action, in the right mix, in the right time that leads to high performance.

The challenge for a high performing organization, and for individuals in pursuit of excellence, is to find the optimal zone where aggression brings a multitude of benefits without becoming an overwhelming force that results in the destructive elements of this quality becoming predominant.

In my next blog, I will try to outline some of the actions that an organization needs to take to find the optimal zone for their workforce.

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