5 Tactics: How to stay sane & thrive in unhealthy workplaces by Dr Flis

Have you ever wondered if it's possible to stay sane and thrive, in any workplace? Irrespective of the unhealthy values, attitudes or beliefs driving people's behaviour? Well, I think it is possible - with the right knowledge, skills, and strategies plus a good support network.

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What is workplace violence?

Let's start with a legal definition. 

Legally, workplace violence is deemed as “repeated examples of organisational violence and aggression” that undermines people's physical and mental well-being, and safety, in the workplace and cover a significant spectrum, including,

...online, and offline workplace incivility, aggression, abuse and bullying and is defined as “voluntary behaviour that violates significant organisational norms and in so doing, threatens the well-being of an organisation, its members, or both”(Robinson & Bennet, 1995, p. 556).

Researchers found workplace (or occupational) violence was more likely to manifest if the conduct was accepted as normal by the people in that workplace (Mayhew, 2007; Weatherbee & Kelloway, 2006).

In my research, I described this process under my workplace or occupational “violence continuum” model. This model demonstrates how low level disrespectful behaviours, if left uninterrupted, will escalate into online or offline disrespect, intimidation, bullying and harassment and more.

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Image courtesy of Dr Flis Lawrence from Happier Workplaces | Stop Workplace Cyberbullying

Quickly spotting, and safely preventing unhealthy behaviours before they harm your mental/physical well-being is the first step to staying sane and thriving in any workplace.

Organisational researchers report that successful intervention processes rely on robust organisational reporting and rigorous conflict resolution procedures that are only successful when employees are confident in management’s authentic support in enforcing the resolution process.

5 TACTICS: Diagnosing & preventing workplace violence

1. Recognise that you are experiencing a form of workplace violence. The faster you diagnose the behaviour, the faster you can plan your response.

Is the perpetrator confused, threatening, yelling (or writing), profanities, talking (or writing about) hurting you or something or someone, standing over you, finger pointing and writing abusive emails or posts, making fists?

Recognise how you are feeling. Ask yourself, “Do I feel unsafe right now?” If so, then you are likely experiencing online and/or offline workplace violence, which range from deliberate disrespect to aggression, bullying or abuse.

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2. Stay calm.

Yep, I know! This is far easier said than done.

However, if you show distress the perpetrator is more likely to escalate their behaviour because they can see that they're affecting you, and will keep prodding you until you snap. At which point they'll probably point the finger at you and allege that you're unprofessional.

So you need to start practicing a calm response...here's how:

First of all, try practice taking three deep breaths to help you slow down and tap into your emotional state. When we feel a bit stressed, this simple step will help you calm your physical response (elevated heartbeat & breathing) and home in on what's really happening, rather than simply reacting to the other person's actions.

Ask yourself, 'Why did they say that?'.  Or, 'What's REALLY going on here? Why is this person behaving like this NOW?'

Alternatively, mentally 'pivot' yourself both mentally and physically. HOW? One option is mentally flicking to a happier event such as a holiday. This gives you a “mental break” that, again, will help move yourself out of the fight/flight response that the other person is trying to force you into. Again, these mental tricks are all about regaining your control and giving you the time to decide how to respond, rather than freezing or angry.

You can practice these simple techniques, with anyone at any time. The secret to any of these (and other) tactics is to practice, practice, practice.

3. Listen. Then Clarify.

This step is about defusing and interrupting the other person's behaviour.

One safe method is to remain calm and professional, and to listen and clarify the immediate issue.

This strategy also helps you to regain control of the situation, while also actively helping the other person to access to their rational, rather than their emotional, side of their brain.  I've listed some questions that can help you do this - only use this tactic if you feel safe to do so. For example:

"That's interesting, Alex.  Why would you say (or ask, or do) that?"

"You may be right. Tell me your ideas."

 “Jo, just so I'm clear, would you mind repeating that [first, second, third sentence/part] please?”

“Just to be crystal clear, Sam, you said xx and xx needs to be changed – how does that sound?

4. Seek 'Time Out'.

If the behaviour you're dealing with is so aggressive that you feel unsafe and frightened, one option to defuse the situation and take back control is by asking if you can take notes to “make sure you remember all the details.”

This is a very professional strategy that allows you to physically relocate yourself out of harms way (e.g., you may need to grab a notebook, which lets you move away from the person and gives you a break from the conflict). Taking notes also allows you to occasionally break eye contact and to look away from the person. This tactic will help you give yourself some mental 'time out' where you can calm yourself and think. It's surprisingly difficult to think clearly when being forced to maintain constant eye contact with someone who's being aggressive right in your face.

This tactic also allows you to record the events and develop your evidence for future reference.

This simple technique takes the pressure off you without being submissive.

To introduce this tactic you could say, for example, “Pia, do you mind if I take notes so I can record the details?”. Lean slightly forward to indicate you’re listening, however avoid nodding or indicating that you're actively agreeing. You're simply listening, and defusing the other person's unhealthy behaviour.

5. Document and report.

Empower yourself by documenting the incident’s details, and calmly, professionally report the incident to HR and/or your boss (or their supervisor).

It's critical you report the matter to someone so it's in the official records. You need to demonstrate how you've tried to resolve the matter, so the perpetrator can't later accuse you of bullying them.

You will also be taken more seriously if you remain calm during these discussions, and provide your evidence in a written report that uses similar language to your workplace Code of Conduct, anti-bullying policy or OHS regulations.

Provide HR or your boss with  a copy of your records, and keep the original hard copy.

If this behaviour has made you feel unsafe at work, then clearly state this to the relevant authority at work (if the behaviour is aggressive, report the matter to your local police). You may be asked to clarify whether this incident has been repeated in the past (e.g., if the bad behaviour has been persistent then your boss or HR may ask you for more evidence, as you may have been bullied).

If relevant, request options to help you feel safer in the work environment. Your employer, supervisor and/or HR are legally mandated to help you feel safe at work. Feel free to develop your own resolution options prior reporting the incident.

If you're receiving disrespectful, aggressive or abusive online behaviour/communication, report the matter to your ICT team.

As I said before, if you feel threatened, report the online or offline matter to your local police.

Avoid wherever possible:

  • Power struggles.

  • Becoming “sucked into” the argument or taking the issue(s) personally.

Building Healthier, Safer Workplaces

If you'd like to develop healthier, safer team or workplace values, behaviours, and attitudes (culture) then click HERE to download my Creative, Healthy and Engaged Workplaces Initiative Outline and Blueprint.

- To learn more about my team and workplace behaviour change program, or to learn strategies to safely interrupt unhealthy behaviour like bullying, contact me at team@DrFlis.com or at http://www.DrFlis.com/contact-me

Other eCourses and Products

  • Click HERE for your Toolbox: Gaining Greater Happiness & Success At Work Despite The Toxic 'Workscape'

  • Click HERE to enroll for FREE on my 7 session course and learn safe strategies to expertly spot & deal with workplace bullying.

  • Click HERE to get my fun, fast, easy to implement Workplace Wish List to discover your team's percolating concerns or worries driving unhealthy behaviours and attitudes, without escalating it further.


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I have a PhD in organisational social psychology and 25 years experience in private, military and government workplaces. I help leaders, HR and workers quickly spot and safely stop unhealthy work behaviours and grow healthier cultures to boost workforce mental/physical well-being, engagement and potential faster. Contact me at team@DrFlis.com, or follow me on LinkedIn Twitter or Facebook.