Five Indicators That Psychological Aggression has a hold of your Organisation

In my previous article I defined what psychological safety is and its advantages to any organisation and talked about 5 distinct approaches that demonstrated it is functioning well. What I didn’t talk about is its more harmful opposite, psychological aggression.

Psychological aggression comes from a place of fear, loneliness, shame, or ridicule, it is the outcome of an individual who is coming from a defensive position.  They will often not feel supported by their peers or leaders or may be under levels of stress that they are struggling to cope with. It can be as subtle as feeling slighted over a poorly communicated statement or as obvious as being shouted at in front of others.

The issue with psychological aggression is that if it is present within any team there can be no psychological safety, this isn’t an opinion, it is biology, let me explain.

The Purpose of our Brain

Nature designed our brain with one purpose, to ensure we see tomorrow. It is our inbuilt radar, constantly scanning the environment for threats to our life. When a threat is detected (this can be real or perceived) its stress response system (also called the sympathetic nervous system) kicks in and we go into what is commonly known as fight or flight.

The problem that we have in this relatively safe but complex society that we live in is that the brain only has one stress response system. Whether you are staring down the jaws of a hungry grizzly bear or you are looking at an ever-growing to-do list, the brain will react in the same way (one is a threat to life, one could be a threat to status, neither has good outcomes for our long-term survival!), it will try to protect itself.

When we are in this place, we are anything but nice (our ancestors didn’t survive by giving the cute grizzly bear a hug and a scratch behind its ears!), we get tense, agitated even aggressive depending on what we are facing, and we will generally fight our way out or run away from a threat.


Implications for our modern society

What this means in our safer but more complex society is that constant demands that are made of us often leave us with no time to recover, more specifically for our brain to recover, this over time increases our stress levels. Our excessive stress levels trigger our stress response system putting us into that fight or flight state which generally makes us more asocial towards each other. In organisations, this will manifest itself in many ways, here are the top 5 things to look out for.

#1 Breakdown in Communication

When two or more people or teams stop communicating irrespective of the reason for this it’s likely that their brains have gone into a defensive place. If the brain had its own voice, it would likely say something like “the last time I had a conversation with them it turned out bad, they are a threat, it won’t do my survival chances any favours if I repeat that process so let’s avoid them!”

Now there will be many reasons why we will have more conversations with that individual/team (the leader says we must, it’s crucial to the success of a project…) but that will often lead to the next point, artificial harmony.

#2 Artificial Harmony

This phenomenon plaque many teams, artificial harmony often manifests itself in boring meetings, where there are no real issues to discuss and solve, everything is just ‘fine’. The reality is there are no real issues to solve because nobody in the meeting feels safe to table them for fear of a backlash from one or more people in the room. Again, the brain defaults to the same stance in point one “the last time a raised an issue I got shot down in flames, I’m not going to put myself in that position again, better to stay quiet and let someone else take the heat”.

If there are meetings happening where nothing is being resolved or nothing is being raised to be solved, it’s a clear sign one or more members attending the meeting do not feel safe, which means one or more members of the team are behaving psychologically aggressively.

#3 Lack of Accountability

Accountability means that a person owns a particular role or task and if it goes well only they get a pat on the back, but if it goes wrong, only they should take the blame. Everyone has an element of accountability in their roles and should know what success looks like, so why do we find not achievers keeping their roles for long periods of time? Often the leaders do not feel safe having conversations about their inability to meet required outcomes. This could be because previous interactions with the person in question did not go well or it could be learned behaviour from past interactions with someone else that didn’t go well. In either case, the brain defaults to “maybe they will come right tomorrow, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt so I don’t have to have that awful conversation today!”

As you can see, due to the perceived threat that this person could be to us, the brain defaults to a safer approach, in this case, avoidance so that it can feel safe now, in the moment, ever hopeful that it will be better tomorrow. The funny thing about that is, our rational brain knows that tomorrow will never come.

#4 Excessive Absenteeism

Unless someone is genuinely sick, any motivated and engaged person would never dream of taking a day off just because they felt like it, it’s not a great survival strategy if the tribe found out they let them down for no reason. This means there are other reasons why people pull sickies without actually being sick.

There can be numerous reasons why people would be absent without illness but the most common by far are:

  1. They can’t face the leader or a specific colleague. In this case, the brain is viewing a specific individual as threatening, and the rules of the tribe win most of the time (turn up, do your best, be of value to the tribe, keep your job) but sometimes the brain gets to the point that the aggression coming from the specific individual becomes too much to cope with and it no longer has the energy to face the threat so it defaults to staying away, again hoping that if I rest today, tomorrow might be better and if it’s not I hopefully will have enough energy to deal with them.
  2. Excessive workload and demands are the other major cause of absenteeism. The brain has a finite amount of energy each day to cope with keeping safe and being of value to its tribe. When the demands of the role, the people around it and technology become more than the brain can cope with, it will take action to bring itself back to balance, to restore its energy reserves. Some people are under so much demand, they can’t switch off out with work, often impacting their ability to get a great night’s sleep further compounding the problem of the brain restoring itself. This ultimately leaves the person feeling exhausted, de-motivated and generally feeling down, the only way to recover is to take time out to rest.


#5 Acceptance of Poor Behaviour

In almost every organisation I have worked with in the last 13 years as an executive coach they all have double standards when it comes to acceptable behaviour and performance. What drives this double standard, is fear, fear of having a conversation about someone’s behaviour, fear of their reaction to the conversation, and fear of the person leaving because they are so skilled.

Fear can cripple our ability to make the right decision at any given time, again our brains stress response system often defaults to “let’s not put ourselves in danger today because it might come right tomorrow” and this is never so relevant as it is when we have to question someone’s attitude or behaviour.

Some of this fear is perceived, and some of it is real and based on past experiences but whether it is real or perceived, that threat may stop us from doing what is right and inadvertently create double standards as a result.

Having a psychologically safe environment for your organisation is not a set goal, it is ever-shifting due to what is happening within it and how that impacts our people. If leaders can focus on identifying when people are slipping into a more aggressive approach, then they can acknowledge it and wrap support and interventions around those people to bring them back to a safe space as quickly as possible allowing psychological safety to thrive and our people with it.