Leaders are sometimes confronted with “acts of aggression”. Whether they like it or not. Reacting with aggression is not the answer; I believe de-escalation is always the answer, including resetting boundaries. But how do you de-escalate when your amygdala is telling you to hit back?


Future leaders are brokers of trust

As you know, I strongly believe that we are experiencing a global leadership crisis. Future leaders should be brokers of trust in a decentralised world, but there are numerous examples of horrible leadership these days.

Aggression has a big impact on trust. So, how do you react to acts of aggression to make sure trust is restored instead of polarization being fueled?

Reacting with more aggression isn’t the answer. As a leader, don’t feed the polarization. It leads to more unrest and even war. Unless you think that divide and conquer will work out for you in the long run. Spoiler alert: it won’t.

De-escalation is the only way. But that’s easier said than done when your amygdala wants to kick in. It requires wisdom from the frontal cortex.

Some acts of aggression are crimes

“A crime of aggression or crime against peace is the planning, initiation, or execution of a large-scale and serious act of aggression using state military force”.

The definition and scope of the crime is controversial. The Rome Statute contains an exhaustive list of acts of aggression that can give rise to individual criminal responsibility, which include invasion, military occupation, annexation by the use of force, bombardment, and military blockade of ports. Aggression is generally a leadership crime that can be committed only by those with the power to shape a state’s policy of aggression rather than those who carry it out.

The ones above are the obvious ones. There are other criminal acts of “aggression”. Murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, fraud, selling drugs just to name a few. It also depends on the country you reside in. For example, did you know that defamation is a criminal offence in the UAE and not in the EU?

All these acts have one thing in common: it’s out of your hands, and criminal courts should handle them.

de-escalation in court

But some aren’t

There are many other acts of aggression that are not a crime and therefore not handled by courts. However, that doesn’t make them less severe.

Workplace aggression is a specific type of aggression. It can range from verbal insults and threats to physical violence, and it can occur between coworkers, supervisors, and subordinates. Common examples of workplace aggression include gossiping, bullying, intimidation, sabotage, sexual harassment, and physical violence.

Workplace aggression can be classified as either active or passive. Active aggression is direct, overt, and obvious. It involves behaviours such as yelling, swearing, threatening, or physically attacking someone. Passive aggression is indirect, covert, and subtle. It includes behaviours such as spreading rumours, gossiping, ignoring someone, or refusing to cooperate. 

Your competitors can also initiate acts of aggression. A hostile takeover is a good example of active aggression. Spreading fake news through media to harm your brand is an example of an act of passive aggression.

And even between friends and family, the same acts of aggression occur. So it’s “relational” phenomena with aggressors and victims.

The effects of aggression

Consequences of aggression are described in medical journals. Aggression has a clear impact on our well-being. Consequences include increased incidences of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, suicide, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, low self-esteem, inability to trust others, flashbacks, eating and sleeping disorders, emotional detachment and premature mortality.

In business it will have an effect on the “business well-being”. You can lose employees, customers, suppliers, reputation which will have a direct effect on your bottom-line.

So, to the aggressors, I hope you can look at yourself in the mirror, realizing that because of your actions, you are making other people suffer. Treat others like you want to be treated.

escalation cycle

A bit of science

To make sense of aggression it’s good to understand the science behind it. The amygdala plays an important role in monitoring fearful situations and creating aggressive responses to them. The prefrontal cortex serves as a regulator of our aggressive impulses. The male sex hormone testosterone is closely associated with aggression in both men and women. The main neural explanation is the Papez-Maclean limbic theory involving structures such as the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus which are implicated in reactive aggression. Reactive aggression is a response to a perceived threat, rather than proactive aggression, which is a response in anticipation of a reward.

De-escalation the medical way

When you research de-escalation you can also end up in Medical Journals. Typical medical tips are:

1. Move to a private area.

If it seems safe to do so, it may be helpful to move the patient away from public spaces and into a private area to talk.

2. Be empathetic and non-judgmental.

“Focus on understanding the person’s feelings. Whether or not you think those feelings are justified, they’re real to the other person.” 

3. Respect personal space.

“If possible, stand 1.5 to three feet away from the person . . . Allowing personal space tends to decrease a person’s anxiety and can help prevent acting-out behavior. Do not block exits.”

4. Keep your tone and body language neutral.

“The more a person loses control, the less they hear your words — and the more they react to your nonverbal communication. Relax your body and keep your hands in front of you, palms facing outward.”

5.  Avoid over-reacting.

“Remain calm, rational, and professional. While you cannot control the person’s behavior, how you respond to their behavior can affect whether the situation escalates or defuses. Empathize with feelings, not behavior.”

6. Focus on the thoughts behind the feelings.

“Some people have trouble identifying how they feel about what’s happening to them.” 

7. Ignore challenging questions.

“Answering challenging questions often results in a power struggle. If a person challenges your authority, redirect their attention to the issue at hand. Ignore the challenge, not the person.”

8. Set boundaries.

“If the person’s behavior is belligerent, defensive, or disruptive, give them clear, simple, and enforceable limits. Offer concise and respectful choices and consequences.”

9. Choose boundaries wisely.

“Carefully consider which rules are negotiable and which rules are not. If you can offer a person options and flexibility, you may be able to avoid unnecessary altercations.”

10. Allow silence.

By letting silence occur, you are giving the person a chance to reflect on what’s happening and how to proceed.

11. Allow time for decisions.

“When a person is upset, they may not be able to think clearly. Give them a few moments to think through what you’ve said.”

De-escalation the business way

Same thing, but hopefully less extreme than real war situations. There’s tons of literature on “conflict management”, and aggression answered with aggression will lead to more conflict which is bad for your leadership reputation and for the work environment.

conflict management

De-escalation of conflict allows leaders to maintain a calm and constructive work environment. It helps organizations build a positive workplace culture where people know their voices are heard and they can feel safe and respected amongst their peers. Furthermore, knowing how to de-escalate a conflict can help prevent something small from transforming into a larger and more damaging dispute. While a certain amount of conflict can have a positive outcome, it can’t remain that way if it escalates into a dangerous situation for anyone involved. It doesn’t even have to become violent for a workplace conflict to have damaging consequences and lasting repercussions.

De-escalating conflict demonstrates to employees that their leader can handle difficult situations calmly and effectively. It instils a higher sense of trust. This leadership skill also shows a sense of responsibility because leaders deal with conflicts before they happen and can offer concise, clear feedback in the moment.

A skilled leader can remain in control and set an example for others. The proper training can help your leaders navigate not only their own feelings and be aware of them when tensions run high but can offer tips for other employees who have concerns. They can hear from both people and suggest ways for everyone to remain calm while getting their point across. This way, each person’s concerns are heard, a resolution is formed, and your organization can create a positive culture that’s productive and motivated. Most importantly, understanding the proper de-escalation techniques means each person feels comfortable knowing they’re not coming to a hostile or toxic working environment.

  1. Breathe in, breathe out. Leave the ego at the door.
  2. Cultivate genuine compassion although you were hurt
  3. Be inquisitive and curious
  4. Listen carefully to understand and to learn (not to respond)
  5. Speak respectfully although you might feel hate

Setting hard boundaries

Don’t forget to reset your hard boundaries towards aggressors. It’s something I had to learn the hard way. Why? Because aggressors will keep using aggression as they will interpret it as an act of weakness if you don’t. Here’s some inspiration from HBR on setting hard boundaries.

Diplomacy never works, until it does. (The Diplomat)

Leave a Reply