Managing workplace threats

with

The Workplace

Think of a time when you were interacting with someone difficult. The more your conversation went back and forth, you probably started to feel frustrated, anxious, or angry. Without knowing it, your breathing probably started to increase, as did your pulse.

But once it was over, and you walked away, it was easy to think about that situation more clearly and think about what you should have said in the heat of the moment. You might even question your interpretation of events and start to second guess yourself. That’s thanks to our body’s fight or flight response.

In this article, we will delve into the key aspects of managing workplace threats, from their common forms to strategies for mitigation and the utilisation of innovative tools like MICARES (Motivation, Importance, Certainty, Autonomy, Relationships, Equity and Shared Values) to enhance workplace safety.

 

Recognising, understanding, and effectively managing workplace threats is crucial for maintaining a productive and harmonious workplace environment. In today's dynamic work environment, ensuring the safety and security of employees is paramount. Threats in the workplace can manifest in various forms, ranging from physical violence to cyber-bullying and psychological stresses such as poor leadership support, workplace inequality, lack of reward and recognition, workplace conflicts, poor change management and communication. Prolonged exposure and poor management of workplace stressors is largely responsible for lack of employee engagement, poor productivity, lack of innovation, a lack of customer empathy, and an increase in mental health claims - globally.

Workplace Conflicts

Many people equate the word “conflict” with fighting, blaming, or arguing. However, conflict is defined as the “condition in which people’s concerns—the things they care about—appear to be incompatible.” In other words, it’s a situation where your opinions, ideas, or perspectives differ from others. It can be a disagreement over issues like budgets, timelines, schedules, or change implementation.

How you chose to address conflict is up to you. In fact quite a bit of work has been done on the different styles of conflict resolution (please note that you are never just one style your interactions, the context will also have influence over your conflict response. (See our other articles on conflict).

This model is adapted from the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Understanding different conflict handling modes can help you improve communication, which paves the way for everyone to find solutions, drive performance, reduce psychosocial harm and thrive!

Managing Threats

Workplace threats can take on numerous forms (interestingly when we ask people has anyone experienced any of the below we get a unanimous response)  including:

  • Workplace Stress: Excessive work demands, tight deadlines, and unrealistic expectations can contribute to psychosocial threats such as anxiety, depression, and burnout. Chronic stressors may impair employees’ mental health and overall well-being.

  • Job Insecurity: Uncertainty about job stability, layoffs, or restructuring can trigger psychosocial threats such as fear, insecurity, and decreased morale. Employees may experience heightened stress levels and diminished job satisfaction as a result of perceived threats to their livelihood.

  • Workplace Bullying: Persistent harassment, verbal abuse, or intimidation from coworkers or supervisors can have severe psychosocial effects on targeted individuals. Bullying behavior undermines self-esteem, creates a hostile work environment, and may lead to psychological trauma.

  • Isolation and Loneliness: Social isolation and feelings of loneliness can be significant psychosocial threats in the workplace, especially in remote or decentralized work settings. Lack of social support and meaningful connections with coworkers may contribute to emotional distress and decreased job satisfaction.

  • Discrimination and Prejudice: Discriminatory practices or biased treatment based on factors such as race, gender, age, or disability can pose significant psychosocial threats to affected individuals. Experiencing discrimination can lead to feelings of alienation, resentment, and psychological distress.

  • Work-Life Imbalance: Imbalance between work responsibilities and personal life can result in psychosocial threats such as chronic stress, fatigue, and decreased overall well-being. Inadequate time for relaxation, hobbies, or social activities may negatively impact mental health and job satisfaction.

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People Plus Science research identified that most common places for workplace threats/conflict are:

  • In meetings
  • Across change management/transformation projects
  • Within the leadership team
  • Within the first 6months of starting a new role
  • Annual reviews (if they occur at all)
  • The onboarding of a new member to the team
  • New leadership
The most common root causes of threats (People Plus Science – Psychological Safety and Wellness Reviews( 2023- 2024)
  • Poor Communication: Inadequate communication channels or styles can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and ultimately, social threats. Misinterpretation of messages or lack of clarity in communication can create tension among coworkers.

  • Lack of Trust: When there is a lack of trust among team members or between employees and management, it can foster a toxic work environment. Suspicion, skepticism, and betrayal erode relationships and contribute to social threats such as gossiping, ostracism, or retaliation.

  • Unresolved Conflicts: Workplace conflicts, whether personal or professional, can escalate into social threats if left unresolved. Issues related to workload distribution, personality clashes, or differing work styles can lead to resentment, hostility, and exclusion.

  • Bullying and Harassment: Intimidation, harassment, and bullying behaviours are prevalent forms of social threats in the workplace. These behaviors may be overt or subtle and can target individuals based on factors such as gender, race, age, or sexual orientation.

  • Power Dynamics: Hierarchical structures and power imbalances within organisations can create social threats, particularly when individuals misuse their authority or engage in favoritism. Employees may feel marginalized, oppressed, or exploited, leading to feelings of resentment and disengagement.

  • Cultural Differences: Workplace diversity can enrich organizational culture, but it can also lead to social threats if not managed effectively. Cultural misunderstandings, stereotypes, and biases may result in discrimination, exclusion, or microaggressions.

  • Workplace Politics: Office politics and rivalries can fuel social threats by undermining collaboration and fostering a competitive environment. Manipulative tactics, cliques, and alliances may form, alienating certain individuals and disrupting teamwork.

  • Stress and Burnout: High levels of stress, excessive workloads, and burnout can exacerbate social threats in the workplace. Irritability, emotional volatility, and decreased empathy may lead to conflict escalation and strained relationships among colleagues.

  • Leadership skills gap: Many leaders have been promoted largely due to technical capability rather than “people skills”. In addition organisations have failed to invest in leadership and succession planning and development in the “people skills area”. A trend towards quick, accelerated digital learning has meant that skills such as conversations, negotiation, conflict resolution are rare yet highly sought by leaders (76% say they would prefer to have had or have additional leadership training).

Your predictive brain

Studies show that your brain spends 60 to 80 per cent of its energy on prediction. In every moment, your brain issues thousands of predictions at a time, based on past experience. Since the brain’s primary goal is to keep us alive, it constantly scans the environment for potential threats. When it does register a possible danger, either real or perceived, it responds fast with a rapid shift in our attention to the source (Blanchard et al., 2011). 

 

Survival Mode

“One of the most fundamental challenges organizations face is how to manage the interpersonal threats inherent in employees admitting ignorance or uncertainty, voicing concerns and opinions, or simply being different. These threats are subtle but powerful, and they inhibit organizational learning. For people to feel comfortable speaking up with ideas or questions — an essential aspect of organizational learning — without fear of ridicule or punishment, managers must work to create a climate of psychological safety” (Edmondson & Lei, 2014, p. 39).

Mitigating Threats

There are three levels of accountability that People Plus Science address in organisational resilience which includes mitigating threats.

  1. Organisational:  Those that are owned by the organisational leaders. (organisational resilience, psychological safety, culture, accountability frameworks, values)
  2. Team:  Those that are owned by the team in which people work within the majority of the time and the decision making teams they participate in. (social intelligence)
  3. Individual: as individuals we can regulate and internalise scientific inquiry to understand ourselves better (emotional intelligence + social intelligence)  

Migitating threats at organisational + team level

1. Communication:

Effective communication is fundamental in preventing and resolving workplace threats. It involves:

  • Creating a psychologically safe work environment: Create workplaces where people feel that they belong, they feel safe to speak up, they are valued, they can ask for help, they can problem solve and innovate without fear. 
  • Clear Channels: Establishing clear channels of communication where employees feel comfortable expressing concerns or reporting incidents.
  • Transparency: Providing regular updates and transparent information about organisational changes, policies, and procedures.
  • Active Listening: Encouraging active listening among employees and leaders to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and understood.
  • Feedback Mechanisms: Implementing feedback mechanisms, such as surveys or suggestion boxes, to gather input from employees and address potential issues promptly.

2. Conflict Resolution:

Proactive conflict resolution strategies can help prevent escalations and foster a more harmonious work environment. This includes:

  • Mediation: Utilising trained mediators to facilitate discussions and find mutually acceptable resolutions to conflicts.
  • Training Programs: Providing conflict resolution training to employees and managers to equip them with the skills necessary to navigate disagreements constructively.
  • Establishing Policies: Developing clear policies and procedures for addressing conflicts and promoting a culture of respect and collaboration.

3. Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives:

Promoting diversity and inclusion enhances organizational resilience and reduces the likelihood of social threats. This involves:

  • Diverse Hiring Practices: Implementing inclusive hiring practices to attract and retain a diverse workforce.
  • Training and Awareness Programs: Conducting diversity training and awareness programs to promote understanding, empathy, and cultural competence.
  • Inclusive Policies: Developing inclusive policies and practices that accommodate various backgrounds, perspectives, and needs.

4. Mental Health Support:

Prioritizing mental health support contributes to employee well-being and resilience. This includes:

  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): Offering confidential counseling services and resources to support employees facing personal or work-related challenges.
  • Promoting Work-Life Balance: Encouraging work-life balance through flexible scheduling, remote work options, and wellness initiatives.
  • Training and Awareness: Providing training on mental health awareness and destigmatising conversations around mental health in the workplace.

5. Organisational Culture Development:

Creating a positive organisational culture fosters a sense of belonging and psychological safety. This involves:

  • Leadership Role Modeling: Encouraging leaders to model behaviors that promote respect, trust, and open communication.
  • Values Alignment: Ensuring organisational values align with principles of fairness, integrity, and inclusivity.
  • Recognition and Rewards: Recognising and rewarding behaviors that contribute to a positive work environment, such as collaboration, innovation, and empathy.

Mitigating threats at individual level

Accordingly, if your brain is using your past to construct your present, you can invest energy in the present to cultivate new experiences that then become the seeds for your future (for your predictive brain). You can cultivate or curate experiences now and if you practice them, they become automated enough that your brain will automatically construct them in the future. This is you taking accountability and control.

1. Emotional Granularity – increasing your emotional vocabulary will create newer constructs and allow your brain to predict more accurately. Instead of being “fearful” of talking in front of others you might actually be feeling “anticipatory at the opportunity with a touch of apprehension”.  Feldman-Barrett has suggested looking at words and language from other countries to be more definitive. 

2.   Vicarious learning – an alertness about threats can create increased attention to the learning experiences, stories and lessons from others. 

3. Scenario testing and hypotheticals – using imagination to identify different paths or consequences allows a person to identify new ways to mitigate threats.

4. Reframing – taking a threatening situation and reframing it into a positive experience around “learning” or “gain experience”.

5. Self awareness – creating self awareness about our interpretations, responses, triggers to environment is critical to providing context and the regulation for scientific inquiry. Are you responding because you a fearful or are you fearful because you have not diagnosed what you are really feeling?

6. Scientific inquiry – the ability to pause and inquire about the “situation” is an important step between feeling and responding. If we can regulate enough to take the time to inquire we will be more in control and have the ability to be more cognitively aware thus improving relationships and decision making.

 

Tools

One of the tools we use with clients is the MICARES framework.  This is a simple to use framework that allows a quick guide into how to communicate, propose, influence in a way that promotes a “reward” rather than a “risk” response.

Motivation & Mastery– if we understand the “real” motivations behind people’s participation it will help us address those needs. With mastery we all want to achieve “our very best” how can we help people achieve mastery in their role. Combining these two Ms means we can really start to build relationships and the intelligence we need to engage and thrive as a collaborative team member, a brand, an organisation, a leader.

Importance – people like to feel valued for the skills and contributions. They may like to be “liked” and be seen as instrumental in a project. 

Certainty – we hear about this a lot but people want certainty over the things that matter to them most (motivation). The detail matters, the assurances and the guides and frameworks.

Autonomy – some of us want to be empowered to make an impact, use our skillset and work without constant supervision or rules. It is about providing freedom and choice.

Relationships – our relationships are important at work – to have someone you trust. But importantly understanding the relationships at home and the impact on work life is also helpful. Some are driven by relationships, connections and a high level of trust – a sense of belonging and community is always strong in this area.

Equity – many value equity and equality and social justice. They are often advocates the allies at work. Fairness is important and clarity around the processes, accountability frameworks is really important.

Shared Values – others care more about the alignment of values. Great dissonance is caused that impacts on mental wellbeing when we are forced to behave in ways that are contrary to our beliefs, upbringing. 

Understanding the way people respond to issues can assist you craft your messages clearer. This tool can be used for consumers, clients, stakeholders, employees, team work, individual awareness and in critical impacts such as meetings, performance appraisals, onboarding new people, change management strategies.

Key Takeaways:

  • Humans have a great capacity to learn what is important in changing environments and optimise behaviors accordingly.
  • We all have accountability to mitigate the threats in the workplace. The organisation, the team, and as individuals.
  • We all approach conflict in different ways, identify what is your preference and how you can start moving to a collaborative conflict resolution style.
  • Leaders need to be training in emotional and social intelligence to support their leadership journey.
  • Leaders have direct influence on their team and are largely responsible for facilitating the right environment. 
  • Organisations are responsible for providing the processes, frameworks, supports for leaders and employes to thrive.

 

 

“Neuroscience is the foundation for the approach we bring to every engagement, and it provides a means for consistently making informed decisions that accelerate organisational performance and well-being”.  Carolyn Grant

Interested in Learning More?

Book a briefing on psychological safety today. Mitigate your greatest risk and drive high performing, thriving teams.