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The Danger of Group Thinking

Jun 01, 20068 mins
Business ContinuityIT LeadershipPhysical Security

Workplace violence prevention is too complicated to leave to a committee, unless we can find a better way to prepare its members for the task.

My “aha” moment about workplace violence committees came from, of all things, a safety manual I read to prepare for some backcountry skiing in the mountains with my family. Like any good risk manager, I don’t want to be too casual about the safety of those under my care, so I conducted research into all the possible risks. After a quick internal argument about bear and mountain lion threat-mitigation and how much my .44 would cramp my downhill performance, I turned my attention to the threat of avalanches.

I found a safety manual with the general rules about gauging the risk of avalanche based on the interaction of terrain, weather and snowpack. It described how to spot dangerous conditions and, more importantly, how to put oneself into the right mode to make a risk decision. But, surprisingly, it also had an entire section on the dangers of groups in perceiving and assessing risks. In a review of fatal U.S. avalanche accidents in the 1990s, it was found that terrain, weather and snowpack conditions were generally contributory factors, but human factors were the primary factor. According to research cited in the manual, larger groups of people actually are less sensitive to risk than smaller groups or individuals, and they typically make bad decisions based on group dynamics. There’s a natural tendency to share the pain or risk, and groups may act out of human desires.

That was when workplace violence risk evaluation rushed to my mind.

Protecting people is one of those noble job responsibilities that CSOs take very seriously. The basic responsibility to serve and protect our fellow man seems clear, especially when we are protecting our company’s employees from dangerous outsiders. But clarity quickly fades when dealing with the distasteful issue of employee-initiated workplace violence. Could it be that this is a risk decision too dangerous and complicated to just hand over to a cross-functional team of employees?

The Team Mind-Set

The conventional wisdom of putting together a cross-functional team to evaluate risky behavior has merit on two main accounts. First, more minds might increase the chances that someone will spot risky behavior. Second, assembling people with points of view that represent everyone in the organization with a role to play makes the action phase easier. If everyone helped make the decision, there is less of a need to sell the decision to anyone.

Those are two attractive reasons, but we must now take group dynamics into account. Let’s face it. No one (including the CSO) wants to make a decision that ends someone’s career or casts doubts on that person’s value to an organization without having a high confidence that he or she is acting for the good of others at the expense of one. It would all be so easy if we could look into crystal balls or even identify a gene that guaranteed an aptitude for violent behavior or the loss of self-control.

Am I taking a too critical view of this subject? Possibly. But let me share with you another story, this one of a particular situation that I thought, finally, presented a clear-cut case of an employee who showed enough of a propensity for violence that my company’s cross-functional team would act in accordance with our policy and terminate his employment.

The event occurred when the employee left work and stopped at a bar on the way home. There, an altercation ensued, and the employee went homebut not before slashing the tires of the car belonging to the other party. Later that evening the “wronged” party, after repairing the tire, drove to our employee’s home to address the grievance. That was when things got really nasty.

The employee exchanged words with his visitors from his porch. Then he entered his house and fetched his pistol. Upon returning outside, he fired several rounds at the now-fleeing subjects. One of those individuals was fatally wounded.

For me, the obvious decision was to remove the employee’s access to company property and terminate his employment immediately. Easy decision, right? Nope. Line management argued that the event took place off company time and property, and that we shouldn’t rush to any conclusion. Some suggested that we suspend him without pay but allow him access to company property during the suspension period. His defense attorney was arguing self-defense, and I was reminded that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

No wonder we CSOs secretly tend to hold little confidence in the decisions made by these committees. Never mind that the sheriff told me that a confession was taken the night of the shooting. No one was disputing the fact that our employee had fired a weapon at another human being. I argued that letting someone who had acted in that manner gain access to our facilities and employees was irresponsible no matter what the courts decided. In fact, I pointed out, the new level of stress in the employee’s life would contribute to the risk factors associated with another potential act of violence. It might have been an act of defense, but it was also an act that included the use of violence.

This incident demonstrates, in an extreme way, that working as a group to manage risk is not a simple affair. Now, when I read the headlines about a workplace violence incident, I no longer ask myself how a company could have missed the things being reported before a shooting occurred. I wonder instead who in the company knew there were signs of violent behavior but was unable to convince the company to act.

Empowering the Teams

When it comes to workplace violence prevention, if you turn to advice from the experts, you receive the standard suggestions of writing a policy and assembling a cross-functional team to evaluate events. These cross-functional teams typically can recommend an array of serious management actions, including administrative warnings, management comments, forced leave without payeven termination. (All these outcomes involve getting the individual help through an employee assistance program.) Yet in my experience, I’ve found that it’s extremely difficult to get the teams to actually use these tools. So why do we provide ourselves with a false sense of addressing the problem?

The reason quite simply is a difficulty of predicting human behavior, coupled with the desire to treat others the way we ourselves want to be treated. How many times have you heard from a direct supervisor, “Everyone has a bad day,” or, “This isn’t normal; he or she just needed to blow off some steam.” We all know that anyone can get frustrated over issues in the workplace. This provides the typical manager enough doubt to err on the side of dismissing behavior as not being something that requires evaluation for violence. In fact, one of our culture’s favorite hero figures, portrayed in TV and the movies, is the seasoned professional whose life is full of conflict and is hanging on an overstressed wire, yet who is so committed to the job that he lands the big deal or comes through with the big bust.

Sure, training employees and managers to recognize warning signs and bring them to the attention of the right people is a necessary and important part of a workplace violence program. What is typically not discussed is how to evaluate behavior for the potential of future violence. The groups don’t have ready access to experts who can best determine if a person has the requisite controls to manage his or her own anger and keep from acting out in the future. The cross-functional team often lacks the confidence to make life-altering decisions, and there’s little attention paid to how members should mechanically conduct their evaluation. Why is this important? Several things might happen to the group’s decision-making process:

  1. The typical response, especially after an education and awareness campaign within a company, is to evaluate many events and come to the conclusion that the bar for workplace violence evaluation needs to be set higher. The group overreacts. The negative outcome is that fewer events are sent to the team for evaluation.
  2. Another outcome is that the group becomes numb to the possibility of workplace violence. That could be when there’s a track record of evaluations that were marked for local manager action but did not lead to any major event, even though the manager failed to monitor the employee. This is dangerous because there could be a long delay between the warning behavior and the violent outcome. After a while, the group is seen as a Chicken Little, always crying that “the sky is falling.”
  3. Finally, there is the “usual suspects” mentality that stifles honest discussion and closes minds, thus harming the group dynamics. This is where the HR representatives to committees begin to see themselves as the evaluated employee’s defense attorneys, and the CSOs are typically typecast as the kind of people who would throw their own grandmother in prison.

To make these cross-functional groups work better, CSOs and business managers need to receive training on how to identify risky behavior and successfully manage it. These groups can’t just be turned loose with the problem. They need guidance, and more importantly, they need to know what factors are influencing how they are arriving at decisions. In other words, they need avalanche awareness trainingthe understanding that group decisions may tend toward an underestimation of the risks involved. That realization alone could be enough to overcome the dynamic that make groups less risk-aware.

This column is written anonymously by a real CSO. Send your comments via e-mail to