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In my last blog post, 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 to 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 and 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 close 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 he or she 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 good in the long run, even 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 and one of their facilities was flooded, 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 number 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 quickly 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 also beginning to receive training in this skill. 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.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/23912576@N05 / CC BY 2.0


The Hawaii Psychological Association (HPA) recently celebrated its 14th annual Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards. We were honored to have the opportunity to formally recognize the excellence of the award candidates and the exemplary workplaces they represent.

As psychologists, consultants, students of psychology and educators—HPA’s commitment to wellness in the community is firmly anchored in the efforts of the Psychology in the Workplace Network, under the guidance of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

Each of us is influenced by our respective workplaces and by those around us who are, in their turn, influenced by their workplaces. Workplace wellness has ripple effects and systemic impact across many domains touched by the science of our field. Our efforts to support growth, resilience and humanity in the successful workplace stand to feed back into the betterment of our community, ourselves and in the individual lives of our clients, patients, students, mentors and loved ones.

For example, on the cover of Tuesday’s Star Advertiser was the headline, “Job’s wellness program pays off for whole family.” The article focuses on a family, the mother of which committed to her employer’s wellness program, a program that permits her to exercise on company time, provides a company gymnasium for employee use, and classes, mentoring and a company trainer, enabling her to lose 70 pounds. That company? A former winner in HPA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program, ALTRES Staffing.

One important thing to note, though, is that what separates Hawaii’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program from other “healthy workplace awards programs” is psychology. Therefore, we look at things like employee recognition, growth and involvement, work-life balance, community engagement and communication. Corporate wellness initiatives are very important, but not sufficient to have the desired, bottom-line impact that organizations are seeking. The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program is a holistic program of psychological well-being, not just a “best places to work” award.

This year, members of our committee conducted a program evaluation to examine the ways in which our Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program has affected participating organizations and their employees since 2003. Responses from participating organizations have led us to conclude that Hawaii’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program has had lasting effects on companies, employees and their families, with more than half of participating organizations adding or enhancing wellness initiatives across all areas of psychological health and wellness.

Over the past 13 years, we’ve had the privilege of recognizing more than 70 organizations that have demonstrated some remarkable practices. The organizations honored have included everything from active duty military ships, moving companies, banks and high-tech organizations to insurance and construction companies.

Despite the range of fields and industries and the different challenges each organization faces in surviving and creating a healthy workplace, you’ll find a number of characteristics common to all of them:

  • A strong sense of community- People are engaged and involved.
  • Trust- Management and staff trust and respect each other.
  • Communication- employees know what’s going on, have a say in what and how things are done, and know they will be heard.

The organizations that have been recognized by the American Psychological Association and its affiliated state, provincial and territorial psychological associations across the U.S. and Canada are on the leading edge of a growing trend. They recognize that healthy workplaces make good sense in every manner: financially, ethically and morally.

These organizations don’t just survive, they thrive, and are leaders in their industries. They are great places to work, not in spite of the workplace practices, but BECAUSE of them. People are their greatest asset, and they know it and act on it!


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 counterbalance 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 causes organizations to find a psychologist to help them 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 2014 APA Work and Well-Being 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 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 and Koch, found in the Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. (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, at 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 post, I will try to outline some of the actions that an organization needs to take to find the optimal zone for their workforce.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/claudiogennari / CC BY 2.0



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