Applications of Psychology to the Workplace: Developing Healthy Aggression (Part 2)

By Dr. John Weaver.

In my last blog, I tried to outline what I see as the risks and the benefits of developing healthy aggression within an organization. This important and difficult task is essential for sustaining high performance.

In most organizations, the challenge of being effective comes both from employees who are too passive as well as those whose aggression does more damage than good.

The framework I use comes from an application of insights drawn from the work of Edward Deci & Richard Ryan (Intrinsic Motivation and Self Determination in Human Behavior, 1985). They discussed three factors in the development of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and relatedness. In my application of this work, I suggest that the accelerator for increasing aggressive action in those who are too passive comes from increasing autonomy. The brakes for those who are too aggressive are to increase the value of relatedness.

When an employee is TOO PASSIVE, it is helpful to look first to systemic factors within the organization. Managers who micro-manage are more likely to create passivity within the workforce. The micro-manager gives very specific directions to a direct report who is expected to do exactly what his or her boss demands. When that task is done, he or she will wait to be told what to do next before taking on additional work. Employees need to develop autonomy to take the initiative and aggressively pursue organizational goals. This means that the task of the manager is much more one of aligning the goals of the organization with the goals of the worker, providing him or her with the tools and skills necessary to achieve those goals and supporting him or her in the work. A great manager helps an employee to have a sense of pride in a job well done.

My father spent his career at a utility company, working his way up through the ranks and eventually having responsibility for the operations of the southern district of his organization. At his retirement party an employee who worked for him told me that my father had saved his life.

This employee was near to being fired by the company when they assigned him to work for my father. The crew on which he worked had multiple responsibilities including some very physically difficult and dirty jobs to which each member was assigned in turn. He was being placed on the difficult and dirty assignments day after day, with no rotation. After a few weeks of this, he stormed in to see my father and demanded to know what was going on. He said my father looked at him and told him that this was his last chance to make it with the company, but that meant that he had to work every job in a way that he could be proud of his accomplishments. When he showed he could do that in this difficult and dirty job, he would be given the chance to be assigned the other responsibilities, too.

My father explained to him that his job, as a supervisor, was to make sure that everyone who worked for him could be proud of the work that they did. That would be an attitude that they could take home to their family, and, if they carried that mindset over, they could also be proud of the way they treated their family, which would help them to be ready to come back to work and do work they can be proud of again the next day. This employee was feeling angry. My father understood that his job was to help the employee to align that anger with the goals of the organization in a way that he could have the aggression to tackle the difficult challenge of changing his attitude and begin to work in a way that made him feel more worthwhile. He had to move from feeling like a passive victim to an active shaper of his own life.

This employee realized that he had not been acting in a way that made him proud of anything at work or at home and that he needed to make an attitude adjustment. He became a very successful employee who was promoted, and who went on to have a successful career with the organization.

Sometimes, however, aggression becomes TOO INTENSE and needs to be brought under better control to be an effective force for the organization. While passive workers need to develop more autonomy, the overly aggressive employee needs to develop his or her relatedness skills. Aggression is brought under disciplined control when the aggressor is cognizant of his or her connection to the organization, to the other employees, to customers and to the larger society. Aggressive actions based on narrow self-interest are usually not even good, in the long run, for the individual. Humans are a social species and we need to relate to others to be healthy and successful across our lifespan.

Several years ago, I was contacted by a long-term care organization. There had been severe spring rains that resulted in local flooding and one of their facilities was flooded out, necessitating a move of all of the residents and staff to co-occupy a nearby facility with the residents and staff already there.

Under this stressful circumstance, staff members began reacting with narrow self-interest and aggression toward each other. This was having an impact on the quality of care for the residents of the two facilities. It was not possible to change the circumstances until the floodwaters receded and the damaged facility underwent extensive cleaning and repair.

As I listened to staff members describe the stress they were enduring and heard the anger they had toward other staff, I was aware that this conflict was arising from the staff member feeling trapped and trying to do something to protect himself or herself. So I asked each person to tell me why he or she chose to do this work.

People who work in long-term care don’t get paid much. They don’t get a lot of respect, even from other health care professionals. It is difficult to provide care, around the clock for residents who are unable to care for themselves. Those who choose to do this work want to be part of something larger than themselves. They are willing to do difficult work because of the connections they feel with the residents and to the mission of the organization.

As each staff member reminded himself or herself of the reasons for doing this work, their anger toward the other staff members visibly decreased. (I didn’t have enough Kleenex in the office for the amount of tears shed as employees talked about their commitment to this work.) They were rapidly able to channel the aggression away from their fellow workers and toward a common goal of restoring the facility that had been damaged as rapidly as possible. It was remarkable to see what the combined staff was able to do once they were able to use the aggression to tackle the problem rather than to be angry at each other.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Keeping in a healthy zone, where aggression is experienced but does not become overwhelming, takes mental training. Military and law enforcement personnel undergo intense training to maintain optimal levels of aggression in very difficult circumstances. Top athletes are beginning to receive training in this skill, also. It is a skill that is equally important for any organization pursuing excellent and sustainable performance.

It may be helpful for organizations, and particularly leaders within these organizations to establish regular and rigorous mental training to work effectively with maintaining the optimal zone for aggressive action. This training involves increasing self-awareness and relational attunement. It requires developing skill in emotional regulation. Regular debriefing and reflection is essential on an ongoing basis. Your organization might consider finding a qualified psychologist who can help you make this quality more effective as a dimension of your success.


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