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Preventing Workplace Violence

Unhappy employees can result in more than decreased productivity — in extreme cases, their perceptions and actions can lead to violence in the workplace.

Dave Logan, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and the co-founder and senior partner of the workplace culture consulting firm CultureSync, is a co-author of Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build Thriving Organizations, a book examining organizational culture within companies. He spoke with Occupational Hazards to shed light on how and why employees are capable of workplace violence and what management can do to prevent it.

Logan and his co-authors studied intact social networks, or “tribes,” in the workplace. Tribes are not necessarily departments or teams, but are natural groups of people who talk to each other at work. Each tribe, he said, falls into one of five categories.

Stage 1 is the “danger zone,” the stage where workplace violence occurs. In Stage 2, workers are apathetic and feel they are victims, their voices don't count and that there's no point in trying. Employees in Stage 3, meanwhile, tend to have an “I'm great and you're not” attitude, which can result in workplace bullying and drive other employees down into Stage 2. In Stage 4, everyone comes together with a sense of shared values, and in Stage 5, workers feel that life is great.

Logan pointed out that today's struggling economy makes workers especially vulnerable to moving down a stage. Managers, therefore, need to watch for warning signs to ensure their workers don't reach the point where they think nothing matters and that anything — including violence — is justified, he said.

Petty theft or any kind of criminal behavior, no matter how minor, indicates that an employee is in Stage 1, Logan said. These workers don't feel a situation is fair, so they rationalize that anything they do is permissible. A less obvious sign that a worker is in danger of Stage 1 is alienation from coworkers.

Paying attention to how employees interact is a simple but important way to recognize and prevent potentially dangerous situations. Logan suggested that managers notice who employees speak to, how they organize into tribes, the general theme workers use when they interact, and then work to encourage these tribes to move up to a higher stage.

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