Culture & Leadership

The Most Necessary Management Skill of 2021: De-escalation

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In the wake of a year of isolation, we’re returning to something close to normal and to being together again in a variety of settings—and that will continue. But as we tentatively resume in-person interactions, we may encounter something unexpected, and a bit worrisome: heightened workplace aggression.

Flight attendants in particular have seen a rise in violent altercations as travelers once again take to the skies. On one recent JetBlue flight, a woman refused to wear a mask, screamed obscenities, and threw food and a bottle at flight attendants. On another, a passenger attempted to open a cabin exit door—mid-flight.

Some experts warn that these high-altitude, high-temper altercations may only be the tip of the iceberg. They say that workplace altercations—ranging from friction among teammates to heated interactions with customers—could be an increasingly widespread problem as more employees return to the office.

So how can we equip organizational leaders to handle these tense situations and keep their teams productive? De-escalation could be the key managerial skill of 2021.

Our atrophied social skills

First we should seek to understand why this uptick in aggression is happening.

Psychologists agree that a year of quarantine has dulled our social skills. This clinical confirmation comes as no surprise to anyone who’s fumbled through an awkward conversation with a colleague they haven’t seen in a year or botched a greeting by going for the handshake instead of the elbow bump.

Our curbed sociability could be a result of the social deprivation we suffered during quarantine. Many of us spent the better part of the past year interacting with a severely limited set of other humans, and that isolation may have actually caused our social skills to atrophy—like an unexercised muscle that weakens over time.

The threat of the office

In addition to our diminished capacity for social interaction, many employees are also experiencing higher levels of threat than before the pandemic.

A survey from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of all respondents said they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends. This uneasiness is likely a result of the inherent uncertainty of the situation.

There’s a scientific reason that humans have a deep need to know what’s going on—so we can best protect ourselves—and to exert control over our environment. However, we’ve all experienced massive uncertainty in the past year, and a sudden return to the office can trigger a threat response in the brain that feels like a threat to our existence.

Our brains are designed to constantly scan our environment for potential threats and rewards. When a potential threat is detected, the brain enters a state of heightened alertness to prepare us to react. That fight-freeze-flight response is our body preparing for trouble. Whether the threat is real or perceived, physical or social, our response impacts how we hear others, how we process information, and what decisions we make under pressure. In short, we have cognitive blinders on and are making quick, but potentially harmful, decisions.

Our brains can enter different levels of threat according to the legitimacy and immediacy of the danger we face. For the sake of simplicity, we can call them levels one, two, and three.

  • Level 1 threats are in your broader environment; they do not seem to pose immediate danger. You’re alert but not alarmed.
  • Level 2 threats are those in your neighborhood. You’re highly alert and somewhat alarmed.
  • Level 3 threats are upon you. You’re highly alert and highly alarmed.

So now, as organizations are shepherding people back to the office, employees are suffering from return-to-work anxiety—both surrounding the physical safety of their offices, and their ability to adapt to office social norms again—and increased sense of threat.

Together, these two forces could be causing an unprecedented rash of altercations.

De-escalation as a managerial skill

Altercations happen when small provocations, or threats, escalate into more heated conflicts. But this progression can be disrupted by actively de-escalating. By de-escalating, we can keep ourselves and others at a manageable threat level—one that allows us to hear others, and respond calmly and productively. In other words, you’re trying to stay out of the territory of Level 3 and come back towards Level 1.

You can start to de-escalate by labeling the level of threat (both in yourself and others) during a tense situation. Research has shown that simply labeling emotions verbally can reduce their intensity. As the researchers from the study above explain, “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.” Similarly, pausing to mentally label a threat will help you understand how the threat will affect each party’s cognitive functions and actions.

And by understanding the impact of threat response on cognition and behavior, leaders can offset the potential negative side-effects by communicating in a way that comforts a brain in crisis. The result is a decreased chance of escalation and employees that are more focused, engaged, and productive.

Rising tempers

Take this elevator scenario as an example of how you can assess and label threat level, then actively de-escalate… Imagine you’re in an elevator with two strangers. As the doors are closing, a man runs toward it, yelling, “I’m late! Hold up!” and breaks the handle of his briefcase as he uses it to catch the doors. Immediately angry, he projects his aggression onto the person next to the buttons. “First time in an elevator and confused by all the buttons? That one opens the doors. Try it sometime. This is a very expensive briefcase and it’s ruined. Thanks for nothing, jerk!”

You immediately recognize the man is at a Level 3 Threat and at that point, you watch the shoulders raise and chest rise of the person he’s yelling at. You sense that he was highly offended at being accused of being stupid. His body language puts him at a level 2.

Recognizing the briefcase man was bothered by the monetary impact, you quickly shift your attention and say, “What a shame, that really is a stunning briefcase. I know a repair shop near here if you’re interested?”

He immediately looks down at it, relaxes his face, and exhales. “That’s very kind. I’ve had this since grad school and honestly it’s probably not even worth fixing.” He continues with a chuckle, “My wife’s been threatening to throw it out and buy me a new one for years!”

Now imagine the same scenario where someone in the elevator just responded with “Hey buddy, just calm down, that briefcase looks near the end of its life anyway.” The first and most critical step was to recognize and label the level of threat. Then, we can see how de-escalating the situation was a matter of moving the threat level down a notch.

If it worked this well with strangers, imagine how easy it can be to reduce conflict in a conference room when someone isn’t feeling heard, or in performance feedback when someone isn’t feeling recognized for their work.

De-escalation is a highly trainable skill, and it’s clear that managers will need it in 2021 and beyond. In pilot training programs with law enforcement agencies, we’ve seen the tremendous impact of educating people on levels of threat. One officer explained, “Now that I know [the science], it makes a lot more sense when I’m dealing with people, and how to proceed with those calls … to de-escalate that situation.”

We think it’s time to expand the conception and application of de-escalation beyond law enforcement to the rest of the humans interacting with humans on a daily basis.

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