- High-pressure work environments can lead to aggression and animosity.
- Conflict often involves relationships of power imbalance.
- Aggression is often a response to feeling shamed or insulted.
Anyone with a public-facing job knows that customer service is unpredictable. Many people are easygoing and kind; others are not. Thankfully, research reveals there are steps you can take to maximize positive interaction when speaking with customers and coworkers, even when you have to deliver bad news.
Navigating Interpersonal Space
Camilla Bank Friis et al. (2020) investigated workplace aggression with the benefit of reviewing body-worn camera analysis of situational encounters.1 They recognize that occupational victimization literature frequently discusses the enhanced level of danger associated with factors such as having a high-pressure work environment and interaction with the criminal element, but face-to-face interaction patterns are studied less frequently.
One study they recognize as among the key exceptions (Landau and Bendalak, 2010) demonstrated a positive association between the inability to effectively communicate with patients in a hospital emergency ward setting and the likelihood of serious aggression toward staff. Other research they cite (Rabe-Hemp and Schuck, 2007) found less chance of police staff victimization where the officers initiated citizen contact when first arriving at the scene. But, in terms of practical examples that are arguably broadly applicable, they examined a specific type of encounter that capitalized on some of the more common responses to being confronted with negative news within a relationship of power imbalance.
Avoiding Conflict Through Respecting Character
Friis et al. studied 123 video samples from body-worn camera footage worn by ticket inspectors fining passengers, noting how inspector actions impacted passenger aggression. They recognize that body-worn camera footage is unique in the sense that it is able to document both physical and verbal communication patterns during events. In addition, the clips can be slowed to permit frame-by-frame observation of the interaction enabling reliable behavioral coding of the interaction.
They found that aggressive fining events play out in what they refer to as “character contests,” in which inspector actions are linked with aggressive outcomes. They describe character contests as a process through which a party loses face in an encounter through being shamed or insulted by a counterpart and acts aggressively to compensate, reclaim respect, or restore a sense of self-confidence.
Specifically, although they describe their results as “statistically fragile,” they found that actions that showed authority were positively linked with passenger aggression. They further found actions that were physically dominating to be positively and robustly associated with passenger aggression. They also found that accommodation actions by ticket inspectors were somewhat negatively correlated with passenger aggression.
Friis et al. conclude that because workplace violence often develops through the nature of interpersonal interaction between employees and customers, one way to avoid workplace aggression is through greater focus on employee behavior. In their study, they recognize that expressing sympathy for the shameful or unfortunate experiences of others may allow ticket inspectors to help a passenger save face, which will decrease the risk of an incident escalation.
Cultivating Chemistry, Not Conflict
The success of face-saving conflict avoidance strategies in situations of power imbalance can translate into other situations where a supervisor is reprimanding or counseling a peer or subordinate. Strategies could involve separating the person from the problem by recognizing that individual actions do not necessarily define a person. Tough conversations are also easier within relationships of trust, respect, and common ground. And, regarding message delivery, just as the Bible teaches that a soft word turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1), a calm, measured, unemotional conversation about specific behavior is far more likely to produce positive results.
1. Friis, Camilla Bank, Lasse Suonperä Liebst, Richard Philpot, and Marie Rosenkrantz Lindegaard. 2020. “Ticket Inspectors in Action: Body-Worn Camera Analysis of Aggressive and Nonaggressive Passenger Encounters.” Psychology of Violence 10 (5): 483–492. doi:10.1037/vio0000276.supp (Supplemental).