Why Unconscious Aggression is So Hard to See as a Leader

Can we be aggressive toward someone and not even know it?

I think we can.

Aggression is behavior that is hostile, forceful, or destructive. It comes from the Latin ad- (“to”) and the word gradi (“to step toward something or approach; to attack”).

It is an outward expression of inward anger that can cause incredible harm to others, even if we don’t realize it at first. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what aggression looks like, especially if you’re very comfortable with a highly competitive atmosphere.

The difference is the degree of impact such behavior has on others.

  • If someone is puts extreme pressure on someone else to perform, that’s aggression.
  • When they intimidate an employee into agreeing with their ideas, that’s aggression.
  • When they look signs of weaknesses and use it to their advantage, that’s aggression.
  • When their staff are terrified to speak up for fear of being punished, that’s aggression.

In this article, I will be explaining the 3 types of aggressive behavior, what happens when it’s done unconsciously, and how to make changes that will benefit your business.

 

The Trifecta of Aggression

Let’s take a look at each of the three aspects of this behavior: hostile, forceful, and destructive.

Hostile Behavior

This includes actions or attitudes that are:

Hostility pushes people away and creates distance. It downplays the experiences of others and causes relationships to fracture apart.

Forceful Behavior

Someone with this type of behavior is:

Forcefulness thrives on negative and dominance of others. It focuses on punishing and creating a system of control.

Destructive Behavior

Here’s what this looks like:

  • Causes a person to experience severe injury, disaster, or disruption that results in long-term harm (emotional, mental, physical, or financial)
  • Destroys someone’s characterreputation, and/or livelihood
  • Creates irreparable damage with waste, loss, fraud, or abuse
  • Reveals weaknesses that can be exploited
  • Ignores warning signs and feedback

Destruction causes others to be ruined in all possible ways: mentally, emotionally, physically, reputationally, socially, financially). There is no concern whatsoever for the person’s health or well-being; only on gaining more power.

In combination, these three can cause tremendous damage to an organization. The key to identifying the damage is to recognize which actions and behaviors are seen as acceptable, and which are not.

volcano, Hawaii, Hawaiian, active volcano, aggression, aggressive, leadership
Anger can boil over, just like this volcano (Hawaii, USA).

Aggression Inside a Company

Company culture is an outward expression of its owner’s core beliefs and values. So when an company’s policy is to reward aggressive behavior, its leaders (implicitly or explicitly) are saying:

  • “It’s okay to step on toes to get ahead.”
  • “Win at all costs.”
  • “We are number 1.”
  • “Crush the competition.”
  • “Fight to the death!”

I want to stop here and say something.

Aggressive and violent language can be appropriate in certain cases. If your company serves a demographic that favors contact sports, cage matches, and cutthroat competitions, then by all means—do whatever serves your audience’s needs.

But there’s a point at which aggression can be very damaging to your staff, customers, and even to you personally.

I believe organizations cross the line when their culture:

  • rewards harmful behavior,
  • limits voices of dissent,
  • encourages unethical activities,
  • promotes violence and brutality, and
  • turns a blind eye to suffering.

I will be examining each of these areas in detail below.

Aggression is especially common with leaders who are highly motivated, competitive, and have a forceful personality—a Yang imbalance. (Read more: Yin and Yang Approaches to Management)

Yin and Yang, extreme, balance, strategic balance

I have worked for, and consulted with, companies where the culture is incredibly pushy and toxic. Yet often, the leaders have absolutely no idea this is happening. It’s like they are blind to the harmful effects that others experience as a result of their decisions. By the time someone finally gets through to them, the damage has already been done.

 

What is Unconscious Aggression?

When the leader is unaware they are acting in a hostile, forceful, or destructive way, the behavior can be unconsciously manifested. She or he may not intend to cause harm, and may even perceive their actions to be helpful—but in the eyes of others, it could still be very damaging.

No leader is immune to experiencing bias; we all have it. Bias happens because we can’t always see the problems that others see, or recognize which information we ignore or magnify when making a decision. Even the most open-minded leader finds it difficult to hear information that may challenge their core beliefs.

That’s why it’s so important to recognize strategic risks—areas of vulnerability and untapped opportunities that could make a huge difference in your organization.

One of the most difficult risks to overcome is the one that’s closest to us: our own perception of reality.

With this in mind, here are 5 ways Unconscious Aggression can rear its ugly head.

 

1. Unconscious Aggression rewards harmful behavior.

I grew up on the East Coast, where you need to be loud and forceful to get ahead in life. We often joked that “if you’re not the first to grab food, you don’t eat.”

The “elbow-your-way-in” concept comes from a cultural and sociological belief system that is based on aggressive behavior. In organizations where dominance is rewarded, there is an imperceptible shift toward binary (“either this, or that; not both”) decision-making. In companies like this, problems are dealt with swiftly and without mercy.

The book “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott discusses the challenge of dealing with difficult topics, while also remaining open and aware of the experience of others. Now that I live on the West Coast, I’ve experienced a transformation in the way I perceive aggression and violence in the workplace. Similar to the fishbowl concept (you can’t tell what’s wrong until you’re outside the situation), I realize how much damage can happen when leaders encourage their staff to participate in highly competitive, emotionally charged situations.

Some of us like conflict. We enjoy the process of debating, wrestling with issues, and arguing our ideas with others. But not everyone wants to be on the receiving end of that aggression. Other people are extremely uncomfortable with conflict, to the point where they do everything possible to avoid situations where there is dissent, often refusing to listen to those with an opposing view (called a Devil’s Advocate).

Both of these extremes are dangerous.

A good balance would be to recognize the harm that is being caused by extreme aggression (or by extreme passivity), and seek to create better communication.

How to reward constructive behavior:
  • Establish clear boundaries about communication, scheduling, business processes, job roles, and policies.
  • Identify and leverage the Devil’s Advocates in your organization.

 

2. Unconscious Aggression limits any disagreements or dissent

A toxic culture can look and feel completely normal to the outside world. But once you’re inside, it’s a different story. Often, the only indicators that something is wrong include shutting down any hint of disagreement.

I’ve been in several dysfunctional work environments. The main indicators that an owner is shutting down any disagreements include:

  • Employees refuse to talk about important topics
    • (“I’m not allowed to gossip, so let’s not talk about why half the company was just fired.”
  • Nobody points out glaring problems in the company
    • (“We’re facing a lawsuit? We had nothing to do with it; everything will be fine.”)
  • Excuses are made to explain missed deadlines, objectives, or goals
    • (“That was just a rough year; things will turn around!”)
  • Strange or inappropriate behavior is excused
    • (“Oh, don’t mind our boss screaming obscenities, being sexually suggestive, and swatting us on the rear; that’s just the way he is.”)

Each of these examples (all of which I have personally experienced, by the way) indicate an aggressive and toxic culture.

Even if circumstances become dangerous, the pressure to conform often cause everyone to keep their mouths shut.

How to acknowledge dissent:

 

3. Unconscious Aggression encourages unethical activities

It’s hard to imagine, especially if you are in a supportive work environment, but I’ve seen this enough times that I believe it is a huge problem in the corporate world. Some companies allow unethical or even illegal behavior because the results are worth the risk of being caught (consider just how far Enron’s executives went before they were finally stopped).

Although there may be perfectly good reasons for “bending the rules” or “cutting corners,” the bottom line is that every business owner is fully responsible for what happens at all levels of the organization.

So if you are a business owner and you hear of any hint that impropriety is occurring, it should jolt you into an immediately evaluation of your policies and procedures, training, and processes. And you should especially be asking: What’s the root cause? Why did something like this happen? (Read more about root causes here).

How to avoid unethical activities:

strategic plan, strategic planning, framework, fine china, management

4. Unconscious Aggression promotes violence and brutality

Some leaders consciously create a culture that rewards violent behavior. When this happens there’s no point trying to change their minds. If an employee or customer tries to fight against that kind of culture, they are likely to get “chewed up and spit out.”

The only way to reverse a culture that rewards violent behavior is for the top leaders to become highly aware of the damage it is causing, and to personally decide to take a stand. The worse the abuse, the more extreme the tactics needed to get a leader’s attention.

Making this type of 180-degree decision takes guts. It’s risky, because there’s no guarantee that others will agree and support your decision. But it’s also incredibly empowering, because it shows that you respect the interests of ALL stakeholders, not just the ones who act, say, and perform the way you want.

How to stop violence and brutality in your organization:
  • Reflect on the pain that others may have experienced as a result of your decisions. Read more: What Happens When We Avoid Pain in Decision-Making?
  • Admit the ways you’ve failed.
  • Take responsibility for your actions, and make it right.
  • Support non-violent communication methods and activities
  • Establish a feedback loop that alerts you to any future harmful behaviors. (see image below)
feedback loop, healthy feedback, empathetic leaders, structured mechanisms
Components of a Healthy Feedback Loop in circle diagram

5. Unconscious Aggression turns a blind eye to others’ suffering

Some companies that pride themselves on having an “open-door policy” where “honesty is the best policy.” In reality, however, the majority of leaders have strict expectations about what this means.

  • Certain topics may be off-limits.
  • Employees might be afraid to step on toes and point out inconsistencies.
  • There may be a silent rule to never point out the ridiculousness of the “Emperor’s New Clothes [or Decisions].”

Any dichotomy between how a leader acts and what damage their decisions cause to stakeholders (customers, staff, investors, and the community) reveals a deeper problem.

In the worst-case scenario, the unawareness to the destruction being cause will lead to intense misery and pain with long-term reputational, social, and financial impact.

How to recognize blind spots and see the suffering of others:
  • Explore new topics on issues like intimidation, violence, and abuse. Many fantastic documentaries highlight the suffering of people at the hands of highly aggressive leaders.
  • Define the “worst-case scenarios.” What will happen if you face a scandal from a dissatisfied employee or customer? How will it affect your business? What can you do to nip those potential problems in the bud?
  • Look into the future. If things continue the way they are going, what will that look like in 5 years?
  • Identify repeated claims. If your staff have complained about inappropriate behavior or intolerable conditions, or if you have high turnover for the same types of reasons, consider taking drastic action to rectify things.

 

It’s not easy to look in the mirror and identify our areas of weakness as leaders. I hope these examples can help you find new ways to become more receptive and sensitive to your staff and customers.

 

Are you wondering whether your business is experiencing “unconscious aggression”? Schedule a free call to discuss ways to regain balance and control.


Grace LaConte is a Strategic Risk Expert who helps service business owners find and fix organizational vulnerabilities. Using her experience as a Risk Officer in the healthcare and technology fields, Grace shares a refreshingly honest approach to uncovering hidden risks and opportunities. Learn more at http://laconteconsulting.com, or connect with her on Twitter @lacontestrategy.

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