Avoid Injustice, Workplace Violence
BY Gary Sheely
You can ensure employee confidence in leadership’s commitment to fairness in the workplace. Ask yourself if your employees are secure in their expectation of impartiality in the resolution of disputes. Can they anticipate equity in the distribution of rewards and resources? Would they say that their supervisors treat everyone with the same level of respect and dignity, no matter what their position in the organization?
When you can answer “yes” to these things, you will have successfully diminished one of the three major contributors to violent incidents in the workplace: the perception of injustice.
Three Kinds of Injustice
Organizational psychologists have identified three types of organizational injustice. Distributive injustice involves the distribution of rewards to employees. Procedural injustice is perceived as unfairness in the processes that resolve disputes. But the most significant contributor to workplace aggression is interactional injustice. This is perceived as inequity in the level of respect, dignity and courtesy demonstrated by those involved in carrying out procedures and policies.
Feeling respected and being treated with dignity during interpersonal interactions with managers and supervisors are more important factors in the average worker’s perception of justice than the distribution of rewards and execution of workplace policies.
The Power of Trust
A study of medical malpractice lawsuits, which are at their core driven by the perception of injustice, provides a bit of insight. In 1997 Dr. Wendy Levinson recorded and analyzed hundreds of hours of conversations between doctors and their patients. In the study, half of the doctors had never been sued, and half had been sued at least twice, although there was virtually no difference in the number of mistakes documented in the two groups. Here’s what she found:
The doctors who had not been sued:
- had spent an average of three minutes longer with each patient;
- were more likely to be active listeners, saying things like, “I’d like to know more about that,” or “Tell me how you’re feeling about this”;
- were much more likely to initiate humor and laugh during the patient visit; and
- made a regular practice of using orienting comments, such as “Let’s do the examination and we’ll talk about what we find” or “Be thinking about any questions you might have before we wrap up”.
What we learn from this study is that the perception of injustice that drives medical malpractice litigation is not predicated on the number of mistakes a doctor makes, but on whether or not the doctor had engaged in trust-building behaviors during interaction with the patient. In a nutshell: Is the doctor likeable? Has he/she earned the trust of the patient?
It’s easy to transfer this insight into the workplace. When supervisors are skilled at trust-building interaction with their workers, the perception of injustice that often precedes workplace aggression is held at bay.
How to Build Trust
Give information. Make business decisions in the open. Over-communicate the thought processes you went through to arrive at your decision. Withholding information will earn the distrust of employees.
Trust your employees. Trust is earned when trust is given. Tell them, “I trust you can do this, or I wouldn’t have asked you to try.” In nearly every case there is a subtle psychological pressure to reciprocate trust when we receive it from others.
Follow through. Do what you say you are going to do, especially on small things that happen every day. If you tell someone you are going to call them or email them before the end of the day, do it. On a daily basis, those myriad small things that you keep your word on are cumulative, and add up to trust on larger issues.
Own your errors. Everyone makes mistakes. And everyone knows that. It seems counter-intuitive, but those who admit when they’ve made a mistake will earn the trust of others, while those who deny it come to be distrusted.
Be promptly straightforward. Never let employees hear from others the bad news they should have heard from you. Be as frank as possible while maintaining appropriate empathy.
Give proper credit. Properly attribute the positive role that people have played in team accomplishments. Humbly downplay your own role.
Act on advice you solicit whenever possible and prudent. But never ask someone for advice unless you genuinely think that person may have an insightful contribution. Asking someone for advice just to make them feel important is disingenuous and mildly manipulative. If you ask for advice and then don’t follow it, make sure you explain exactly why you can’t.
Be trustworthy. If someone shares confidential information with you, keep their confidence. If it sounds like something you might have an obligation to report, make sure you say it up front before they divulge the information.
These things all require a small, daily investment, but they add up over time to a workplace much more likely to solve problems with dialogue rather than aggression or violence.
Gary Sheely is a tactical confrontation specialist focusing on workplace violence issues. He’s published three books, including his latest one, “Safe at Work: How Smart Supervisors Reduce the Risk of Workplace violence.” He conducts training workshops and has been a keynote speaker all across the United States.