Defusing crazed staff

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Defusing crazed staff

Effective communication is key, says 9/11 crisis manager.

Bruce Blythe is called on by large organisations to calm employees turned hostile.

It is his job to get between the aggressor, their death threats and the victims.

But although his experience in the US Marine Corps allows him to handle crazed staff, he doesn't come across as a tough bloke: he is of average height and build and is polite and calmly spoken.

Blythe's strengths are his silver tongue and intimate knowledge of human psychology, both honed over 20 years including his time as a psychologist at the Corps.

He was involved in some of the US' major crises: he helped manage the fall out of 9/11, the Oklahoma City and 1993 World Trade Centre bombings, and mass murders at the US Postal Office that would later be remembered by the phrase 'going postal'.

The chief executive officer of Crisis Management International has also managed the fallout from commercial air crashes, kidnappings, ransom hostages and natural disasters.

For most Australian businesses, death threats are not quite run-of-the-mill. But violent threats from staff are not uncommon, Blythe says.

His secret to handling rogue employees who threaten the life of colleagues or reputation of businesses was "effective communication".

Last year, Blythe used the technique when he was personally threatened during a trip on a New York subway.

"There was this big, mean-looking guy taking up two seats with his arm on a really crowded train ... before I knew it I sat down."

Blythe was threatened after he looked across at the man the wrong way: "He said 'what the **** are you looking at?"

Blythe reverted to his training and replied: "I'm sure you are a good person."

The man relinquished, and dropped his arm.

Similar passive techniques work to diffuse violent staff in the office.

"You need to show them that you want to understand their situation," Blythe said. "When you push against them, they resist. If you do not push, they have nothing to fight."

Blythe insisted this passive stance works even for staff bent on revenge.

"Get on the phone and talk to them. Ask them what they want ... tell them you will forward their requests and schedule a time to call back. Keep them talking."

He said most staff calmed down after knowing their demands were carried to decision-makers, regardless of the outcome.

Immediately sacking staff who issue threats should be avoided, Blythe said, because the organisation loses control of the individual.

"They may sit at home stewing, making plans," Blythe said. That placed their victims at greater risk because, in Blythe's experience, there may be insufficient evidence for police to intervene.

Sacked staff often took valuable corporate data without the business knowing. Without a job, they were more likely to sell it off.

Even discounting data loss and theft, mismanaged workplace violence could be costly.

David and Ella Van Fleet wrote in The Violence Volcano: Reducing the Threat of Workplace Violence that hidden and delayed costs to organisations are "especially characteristic" of stressed staff.

"Excessive stress often results in turnover, absenteeism, conflicts with co-workers, decreased morale, blaming management, and survivor guilt, as well as tension and fear," they wrote.

According to Blythe, staff who were sacked or forced to take leave should be first pointed to examples where their behaviour had breached corporate policy. This meant offenders were less likely to take disciplinary action personally.

Effective one-liners

Blythe recommended that risk and crisis management staff memorise "one-liners" for diffusing threatening staff:

  1. “I’d be upset too, if I felt unfairly treated.”
  2. “You seem to be a good person who (simply feels unfairly treated / made a mistake / made a decision that seemed right at the time, etc.)”
  3. “A year from now, this will be a distant memory if you just do the right thing now.”
  4. “The good people always land on their feet and I have every confidence that you will ultimately land on your feet.”
  5. “We all say things we don’t mean when upset. I trust you’ll feel differently later.”
  6. “You don’t want to lose (anything of common value)”, e.g., freedom, respect of coworkers/family, money, ability to get another job, etc. “You're too good for that.”
  7. “I can tell you're a person who lives your life with a lot of passion.”
  8. “You have a strong sense of right and wrong.” (Although this may not agree with your sense of right and wrong, it gets the individual talking about his/her beliefs.)
  9. “The fact that you're upset about losing your job tells me you're a person who cares about working, being responsible and not being a dead beat. I respect that.”
  10. “We’re in the same boat. I don’t like some of the policies around here either.”
  11. “We’re both (anything in common) and I understand where you're coming from”, e.g., sports team fans, from the same hometown, long term employees, struggling to support our families, people who have made it from very little, etc.

Defusing questions:

Angry staff were not typically violent when they talking, Blythe said.

"Repeat back what you hear the person say to demonstrate your understanding without disagreeing and defer decisions to a later time," he said.

  1. “So I can (better understand, help), what do you want or need in order to get this situation resolved?”
  2. “What strengths do you have for pulling through this situation?”
  3. “What has worked effectively in the past during difficult times?”
  4. “In what ways do you feel unfairly treated?”
  5. “What are you concerns at this point?”
  6. “What unfinished business still needs to be addressed?”
  7. “What plans do you have for addressing this situation?”
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