Psychiatric Annals

AGGRESSION IN THE WORKPLACE 

Leadership and Aggression: Affect, Values, and Defenses

David E Morrison, MD

Abstract

Consulting on the human problems in organizations can become very confusing because of the number of people and issues and the complexity of the interactions. Therefore fundamental concepts that help separate the wheat from the chaff and focus the consultant's attention are invaluable. Affects, values, and organizational defenses as they relate to aggression at work are just such concepts.

This paper offers an alternative view of the place of aggression and its power. There is no leadership without aggression and change. There is no change without aggression. Aggression is insignificant without affect. Whereas affect gives aggression its power, values (superego function) control and modulate aggression and make it fit within some socially acceptable context. When the leaders instill values into organizations, they are aggressive. If values are instilled without affect, they are powerless. Organizational defenses can inhibit and divert the healthy aggression required to get the job done. This alternative view of aggression is detailed and illustrated with the following case example.

AN ORGANIZATION AND ITS LEADERS

Within a large technical consulting organization, a testifying expert practice developed. The parent organization considered this practice unimportant until "Earl" made it very profitable. He developed the practice with an unyielding entrepreneurial spirit, and impressed the firm leaders with his ability to create a money-making machine. The practice grew rapidly, and the people he assembled felt confident and proud of their abilities.

Earl had an aggressive personality and encouraged people to speak their mind. He attracted people like himself. They were high achievers. There was more business than there were people to do it. Everyone went where they could make the most money. As business grew, subspecialities developed that evolved into mini-empires.

Part of their success came from their hard work in preparation. One partner commented, "I study and study the details: afraid that someone on the other side will find something I missed and embarrass me." Aggression was very much in the open, and most of the aggression was directed towards success. The group became so successful that they flaunted their success before the rest of the firm. This created a hostile climate between them and their peers. The group became known as "cocky cowboys," and Earl loved the title.

LEADERSHIP, AGGRESSION, AND CHANGE

There are many different definitions of leadership, including providing vision and instilling change. Heifetz1 defines leadership as pushing one's people to deal with their problems. Whether the leader pushes, pulls, or moves obstacles out of the way, he or she leads. The task may be attacking an enemy camp, moving into uncharted psychological dimensions of personal mastery, or deciding which problems to address. Thus, the leader does not simply influence vision and values, but also at some level, exerts control over behavior. Is behavior controlled by aggression or love? Behavior is controlled by both. In a work setting, much of the control is achieved through aggression which, in turn, provides the most appropriate channel for its expression.2

To make things happen is aggressive. Leaders must certainly make things happen. As a matter of fact, in the 1990s, "make things happen" became a management mantra. It includes being entrepreneurial and continually increasing quality, and is certainly one of the responsibilities of being "empowered." To push forward one's own project, ideas, solution, or enterprise is to be aggressive. Part of leadership is to encourage the appropriate expression of aggression by others so progress will continue.

Table

SUMMARY

The concepts of aggression, change, affects, values, defenses, and leadership help a consultant design a strategy to intervene and get the work back on track. They also help give some objectivity to those…

Consulting on the human problems in organizations can become very confusing because of the number of people and issues and the complexity of the interactions. Therefore fundamental concepts that help separate the wheat from the chaff and focus the consultant's attention are invaluable. Affects, values, and organizational defenses as they relate to aggression at work are just such concepts.

This paper offers an alternative view of the place of aggression and its power. There is no leadership without aggression and change. There is no change without aggression. Aggression is insignificant without affect. Whereas affect gives aggression its power, values (superego function) control and modulate aggression and make it fit within some socially acceptable context. When the leaders instill values into organizations, they are aggressive. If values are instilled without affect, they are powerless. Organizational defenses can inhibit and divert the healthy aggression required to get the job done. This alternative view of aggression is detailed and illustrated with the following case example.

AN ORGANIZATION AND ITS LEADERS

Within a large technical consulting organization, a testifying expert practice developed. The parent organization considered this practice unimportant until "Earl" made it very profitable. He developed the practice with an unyielding entrepreneurial spirit, and impressed the firm leaders with his ability to create a money-making machine. The practice grew rapidly, and the people he assembled felt confident and proud of their abilities.

Earl had an aggressive personality and encouraged people to speak their mind. He attracted people like himself. They were high achievers. There was more business than there were people to do it. Everyone went where they could make the most money. As business grew, subspecialities developed that evolved into mini-empires.

Part of their success came from their hard work in preparation. One partner commented, "I study and study the details: afraid that someone on the other side will find something I missed and embarrass me." Aggression was very much in the open, and most of the aggression was directed towards success. The group became so successful that they flaunted their success before the rest of the firm. This created a hostile climate between them and their peers. The group became known as "cocky cowboys," and Earl loved the title.

LEADERSHIP, AGGRESSION, AND CHANGE

There are many different definitions of leadership, including providing vision and instilling change. Heifetz1 defines leadership as pushing one's people to deal with their problems. Whether the leader pushes, pulls, or moves obstacles out of the way, he or she leads. The task may be attacking an enemy camp, moving into uncharted psychological dimensions of personal mastery, or deciding which problems to address. Thus, the leader does not simply influence vision and values, but also at some level, exerts control over behavior. Is behavior controlled by aggression or love? Behavior is controlled by both. In a work setting, much of the control is achieved through aggression which, in turn, provides the most appropriate channel for its expression.2

To make things happen is aggressive. Leaders must certainly make things happen. As a matter of fact, in the 1990s, "make things happen" became a management mantra. It includes being entrepreneurial and continually increasing quality, and is certainly one of the responsibilities of being "empowered." To push forward one's own project, ideas, solution, or enterprise is to be aggressive. Part of leadership is to encourage the appropriate expression of aggression by others so progress will continue.

Table

Table 1The Affects

Table 1

The Affects

Aggression, leadership, and change can be value-laden terms. They can also be neutral as far as values are concerned. I do not see leadership and change as positive or aggression as negative, so in this discussion, they are all value neutral. It is the outcome of leadership, aggressive actions, or a change process that is positive or negative depending on one's values. It is the values that determine whether cutting another human being (either to save his or her life or take it) is good or evil. For this reason, values have become an increasingly important concept for organizations. Values determine if the leadership used aggression and change to accomplish something worthy (for the organization, society, or perhaps a higher power).

Change breaks structure, so it requires aggressive action. Since structure provides support for human beings, change always has within it an element of loss. Change impacts humans' aggression, both in its degree and form". Overwhelming change can either stifle aggression and destroy initiative or heighten aggression and lead to backlash against the leaders, each other, customers, or the machinery.

Although initiating and supporting change is part of the requirements of a leader, most change occurs without leadership. People change every day depending on their needs and the contingencies they encounter. Groups change spontaneously from encountering obstacles or shifts in needs. Those changes are significantly influenced by the values upheld by the group and the degree to which they understand and accept the vision presented by the leader. The affect associated with change, however, is more influential.

As a leader, Earl faced a maturing legal consulting market where clients became more demanding about costs. For the first time there was not more work than they could do. Practices like Earl's had started in other parts of the United States, but none of them grew and profited like his. In order to survive, the firm had to pool expertise and resources, tackle larger projects, and cross sell. This required collaborative rather than individual effort. The firm's leaders aggressively made changes.

Earl was asked by the firm's leaders to head a new organization (GHC) that combined all the practices. New people were brought in from the outside to give new expertise and develop new subspecialities- an unprecedented move. Concurrently, partners were required to generate increasing profits each year. The firm set annual profitability goals of 20% growth for all practices.

The leaders defined the change but mismanaged the aggression in the implementation. GHC was expected to cross sell better, penetrate more markets, and upgrade quality of service. It had modest success. In the past, Earl had met the current profitability goals easily, but after 2 years, GHC had no growth. Many partners were angry about not being part of the decision that created the new organization. The new people were unknown to most of the partners and did not understand the firm's culture. Different people had different visions for the new organization, and the disparate views were not replaced by a common purpose. The group fragmented into silos, and morale plummeted.

AFFECT

Affects are the underlying building blocks of emotions. According to Tomkins,3,4 there are nine affects- two positive, one neutral, and six negative. The affects are outlined in Table 1.

Affects provide a structure for understanding emotion. Tomkins believed they are "hardwired" into the brain and comprise the alphabet from which emotions are constructed. They transform the quantitative data entering the brain into qualitative information. The affects are amplifiers. In that way, they make good things better and bad things worse. They give personal significance to personally neutral sensory input. Affects give a sense of urgency and power to environmental information.

Affects give power to the drives. Without affects the drives do not motivate. For example, even though the hunger drive may be intense, a person will not eat if the affect of disgust is attached to the food. Even an intense sexual drive can lose its power when shame is attached to it, for example, when a mother walks in on a masturbating teenager. On the other hand, the sexual drive is amplified by the positive affect of interest-excitement.

The aggressive drive also receives its power from the affects that become attached to it. If shame-humiliation, distress-anguish, or fearterror are attached to aggression, individuals in a group forced to undergo overwhelming change will lose initiative. For individuals who have anger-rage or contempt attached to their aggression, it will escalate and they will attack more.

The situation can, and usually does, become more complex, however. The response of shamehumiliation can quickly turn into anger-rage or contempt. Anger-rage and contempt can also function as defenses against the affect of shamehumiliation. The affects can change depending on the circumstances and vacillate between anger-rage, distress-anguish, or fear-terror. Then one can observe behavior change from being overly aggressive to being passive, inhibited, or withdrawn.

Affects can be combined and linked to cognitions to create emotions such as revenge, envy, and jealousy.5 When the leader or change agent says to the group, "We will show them (that we can make this deadline; or we are not chumps)," he is using revenge as a way to get the group members to use their aggression and anger constructively.6

When interest-excitement becomes attached to aggression, you have an enthused group that is expansive and receives pleasure from their work. They are tireless and creative. They may move into the flow dimension described by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (Figure I).7 They feel happy about the proper balance between the challenge and their skills.

FLOW

Most of the time the GHC partners felt marked interest-excitement for work with clients. Their skills were equal to the challenge and at times they worked happily late into the night when they were in flow. Negative affects, however, hampered their work with each other and the firnn.

As the leader Earl struggled with negative affects resulting from changes in the practice. Shame was attached to the division's lack of financial performance. "Earl is not used to not being a superstar, neither are we." The new demands of the market and increased size required a tighter more integrated organization but the responses to shame pushed the partners apart. They turned on each other as they shamed and counter shamed one another. Earl called lagging partners "flop clicks." Partners were contemptuous in return when he wasn't around. "He is living off his legend." Contempt was used as a defense.

Most people believed that GHC had too many partners to achieve the financial goals the firm demanded, so fear became an important motivator. "You are always making sure you are not the partner who gets axed this year." That further undercut the teamwork GHC was created to exploit.

Figure 1. The flow dimension described by Mihaly CsikzentmihaIyV illustrates the proper balance between the challenge of a job and the skills of the work force.

Figure 1. The flow dimension described by Mihaly CsikzentmihaIyV illustrates the proper balance between the challenge of a job and the skills of the work force.

MISUSE OF INTEREST-EXCITEMENT AND AGGRESSION

Depending on one's values, attaching interest-excitement to aggression is not necessarily good. Apter8 describes "recreational violence" among London teenagers who receive significant pleasure from the danger associated with violent acts. The same is true for American gangs. Apter disagrees with the old concept in psychology that there is an optimal amount of stimulation for an individual. In that model, one moves from relaxation to anxiety. The model does not explain where boredom and excitement fit, however. In essence, Apter sees it as a frame of mind. In what he calls "reversal theory," there are two continuums: relaxation to anxiety (arousal avoidant), and boredom to excitement (arousal seeking).

Even dangerous or frightening activities can be pleasurable if experienced on the arousal seeking dimension: mountain climbing, race car driving, watching horror movies, or reading frightening novels. In order to enjoy the danger, one must get as close as possible to the danger while retaining a feeling of personal safety either by passive observation or skillful participation (Figure 2).

The concept of recreational violence has an intriguing application for leaders' expression of aggression through change. In the last decade in the United States, management activities have shifted from resisting change to seeking change for the sake of change. Change then becomes continuous, with acquisitions, layoffs, re-engineering, and continuous quality improvement, to name a few events. Consultants who sell change and its management encourage this process. Interest-excitement about the change is high among the leaders, who thrill to the risks and dangers inherent in change. The followers, however, tend to feel distressed, angry, fearful, or shamed. Those in control express contempt towards those who are so "weak" that they do not appreciate that "change is the only constant." But often the changes create more of a constant churning process in the the organization than innovative ways of working. For when it comes time for the leaders or the consultants to change, a different change is introduced for the followers.

Figure 2. The reversal theory as described by Apter' shows two continuums: relaxation to anxiety and boredom to excitement.

Figure 2. The reversal theory as described by Apter' shows two continuums: relaxation to anxiety and boredom to excitement.

One result of this is what an executive called "competitive anorexia." The consultants sell downsizing to one organization in an industry (for example, Exxon). Then after all the press about the promised benefits of the downsizing, they move to Mobil, Amoco, or others in order to sell downsizing. Then the cycle starts again. Each fears it will fall behind because it is not lean enough. Like the anorexic, they pay too little attention to whether or not they are strong enough for the future, and think even less about how "ugly" they have become.

Such recreational violence in organizations is fun for those who are safe. In many cases, there may be rewards in stock increases over the short term. The question is what will happen over the long term, particularly when people have opportunities to leave. Peter Drucker suggested that the answer is for people to become loyal to their profession and not their organization. It is doubtful that organizations can survive if employees are not also loyal to their organization; and leaders who are not loyal to their people create an organization that is not loyal to its people.9

In GHC, senior management continually initiated change, from increasing the annual revenues each partner had to generate to implementing Continuous Quality Improvement and re-engineering. They were enthused about the increasing revenues and demanded more each year. Many of the other changes did not take, however. For months or years the partners filled out forms, attended meetings, and underwent training, but the initiative (eg, CQI) didn't become part of the culture, and a new initiative was started.

There was much frustration in the partners of GHC. They described their environment as demoralizing and remotivating. Most blamed it on the fee pressures. "It comes from money and raising the bar in a remotivating way. There is a sense that 'you miss and you're out', and the bar keeps getting raised."

The predominate affects were negative. Fear-terror was expressed in "running scared." Anger-rage was evident in sullen mood and expressions of cynicism. Distress-anguish was expressed about many issues, such as the loss of the group's commitment to stewardship and the burden of supporting it alone. "It's like a mosquito that slowly bleeds you to death. I wish others would do more of it."

Even if creating changing for others can be fun when you are safe from changing yourself, not all leaders who have the opportunity take it, because their values oppose such self indulgence.

Values as a Control

Although leaders do need to be aggressive enough to make hard decisions and implement changes for the viability of their organization, they also need to consider the future consequences for their organization when they make those decisions. Values relate to just such longterm consequences. For example lying can help in the short term, but causes problems for a relationship over time. Fortunately, many leaders in the '90's have started to recognize these problems and have turned their attention to their organization's core values. Interest-excitement is a positive affect because it is pleasurable and adds a zest to life. But it is not a positive value, it is value neutral. Just because something is exciting doesn't mean it is good. Values are intellectual constructs that control our impulses for a long term desired outcome.

The critical issue is what are the real values, those that motivate people to behave one way or another. When affect is attached to values they have the power to motivate. Stated values about share holder value, stewardship, teamwork, and even profitability are often too lacking in emotional meaning to make them realities. This is why so many fads run through management. Leaders push a change until it is time for them to change. Then, the affects of fear, shame, or anger that are attached to the personal consequences of the change are more powerful than the affects attached to the new value (eg, teamwork). The new value was intellectually motivated with minimal affect attached to it.

GHC had many stated values. They were infused with affect to different degrees. The important values and their level of affective attachment were:

Compete and win had strong interest-excitement.

Autonomy and independence had strong interest-excitement.

Client service had moderate interest-excitement.

Contribution to the common good had moderate to weak interest-excitement.

Being direct, honest, and trustworthy had moderate to weak shame-humiliation for thenabsence.

A universal and important value was to compete and win. "We are driven to win- how do we beat the competitors." Generating income and growth determined who won. Because autonomy and independence was so affectladen it made winning alone more valued than teamwork. Serving clients was not just the means to the end of winning- it was, in and of itself, an articulated value. "Everyone must put personal agendas aside to accomplish things for the firm and clients." This value, along with contribution to the common good, was strongly espoused, but both ideas were lost when they competed with the prior two values. "The best team is not put forward because of individual turf issues."

Most believed that teamwork was necessary to "meet our client's needs." As a team they could accomplish more than they could working individually. But the affect was weak compared with that for competing as individuals, and they ended up not supporting the client service value as much as they said they should. Teamwork would also achieve the "sense of belonging" that they keenly desired. Earl could have used this enhanced value to get the teamwork he needed if he understood the powerful affect attached to it. Unfortunately, shaming and frightening those who didn't win or admitted their dependency needs kept this from happening.

Being direct, honest, and trustworthy were valued, but the stronger affect attached to winning individually resulted in talking behind each other's back. Not living the stated values is one of the things that makes individuals and organizations defensive.

Defenses As Compromisers

Aggression and affect can not be understood without understanding defenses. One affect may be used as a defense for another, as when anger is expressed to cover up fear. Psychiatrists are knowledgeable about defenses in individuals and small groups. Organizational defenses are not as well known.

Organizational defenses have been described by Argyris.10 They are more conscious and under conscious control than individual and small group defenses. According to Argyris, they are used to avoid embarrassment and fear. In my experience they are used to avoid all of the negative affects and can even theoretically be used to avoid positive affects. They are the consequence of individual problem-solving strategies, which Argyris calls "Model I theory-in-use." Those strategies are to seek unilateral control to win, and to not upset people. The actions that result from those strategies are to sell and persuade and save face (Table 2).

Thus, organizational values (eg, tact: "don't embarrass anybody") provoke defenses as a consequence of their function of controlling aggression. But, at root, they are trying to control negative affects. The defenses are often used to support certain values or to just give the appearance of supporting a value. If someone says he supports a company value of empowerment, but others know he doesn't, they avoid discussing specifics that reveal the value is empty of affect. Because such avoidance conflicts with the organizational value of solving problems the defenses are covered up. This is like the organizational defense of "We can't talk about that, because everybody will just get defensive." Here the reality of defenses is used as a defense. So the problem is avoided and covered up, then "the cover up is covered up" (Figure 3).

Table

Table 2Individuai Problem Strategies

Table 2

Individuai Problem Strategies

The organizational problem with the defenses is that needed work is avoided. Problem solving discussions move to trivial topics. As groups avoid negative affect they mismanage their aggression. The aggression is turned on an outside enemy, a scapegoat, nit picking at details, tension-relieving play, etc, and not the problems that require attention. Someone who tries to aggressively cut through to the issues is seen as ignoring important values and tactless.

In GHC Earl and his partners could not solve their organizational problems because they could not get at them. They were hampered by the defenses of

Avoidance, disavowal and rationalization,

Contempt as a defense against shame,

Tactful dishonesty,

Skepticism and cynicism.

Partners ignored issues, and most did not even attend meetings. Disavowal enabled some to bypass subjects associated with negative affect. Despite obvious distress, frustration, anger and financial problems, some said "I do not think there's a problem. Moods, programs, and fads come and go." Apathy supported such rationalizations. "It is not possible to fix it given the rigidity. Ultimately it happens or doesn't happen."

The work demands facilitated avoidance. Everyone had to find, sell, and then do the work. They had 10 to 15 voice mails and 40 to 50 emails a day, which they downloaded in airline clubs so they could work on the plane. Although they needed to work on organizational and relationship issues, those subjects had no affective support, ie, "nobody wants to do the 'house keeping.""

Tactful dishonesty, although antithetical to their espoused value of getting issues on the table, was used to conceal problems. Conflict was no longer an opportunity to examine different perspectives and create new solutions; but was avoided. Partners did not raise issues in meetings- they talked behind each other's back. Skepticism and cynicism were used to cover up the defenses opposed to their values. "The requirements to work together are quite low: cowboys simply don't shoot each other in the back." The defenses did not get rid of the negative affects, however. They complained of being knifed in the back, receiving cheap shots, low job satisfaction, and constant fear of failure.

Figure 3. The organizational defenses ladder shows how defenses evolve to support organizational values or to give the appearance of supporting a value.

Figure 3. The organizational defenses ladder shows how defenses evolve to support organizational values or to give the appearance of supporting a value.

SUMMARY

The concepts of aggression, change, affects, values, defenses, and leadership help a consultant design a strategy to intervene and get the work back on track. They also help give some objectivity to those emotionally charged terms. Understanding the interplay between aggression and values as they compete for affect helps the consultant deal with the leaders' and organization's defenses. Such understanding leads to many options for action within a client organization, such as:

Teaching clients about affects to give structure and diminish emotional intimidation.

Teaching clients about organizational defenses to get them on the side of addressing interpersonal problems more effectively.

Defining the real organizational values and examining if they are what the leadership wants.

Pointing out the wasteful consequences of change that ignores affective reality.

REFERENCES

1. Heifetz RA. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 1994.

2. Rohrlich J. Work and Love: The Crucial Balance. New York: Harmony Books, 1988.

3. Tomkins SS. Exploring Affect The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. In: Demos, VE. Cambridge University Press; 1995.

4. Nathanson DL. About emotion. Psychiatric Annals. 1993;23:543-555.

5. Basch MF. The concept of affect A re-examination. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 1976;24:759-m.

6. Bies RJ, Tripp M. Beyond Distrust: "Getting Even" and the Need for Revenge. In: Kramer RM & Tyler TR, eds. Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of Theory and Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; 1996.

7. Csikzentmihalyi M. Flow. New York: Harper Collins Publishers; 1990.

8. Apter MJ. The Dangerous Edge. New York: The Free Press; 1992

9. Morrison DE. Psychological Contracts and Change. Human Resource Management. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1994;33:353-372.

10. Argyrie C. Overcoming Organizational Defenses. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Harvard University. PrenticeHall; 1990.

Table 1

The Affects

Table 2

Individuai Problem Strategies

10.3928/0048-5713-19980501-09

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