Corporate culture has been the source of vigorous discussion and debate in leadership circles for decades. Despite the persistence of this discourse, we continue to struggle with a working definition of “corporate culture.” A recent article in Harvard Business Review offered that “cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group.”

With this definition in mind, I began to consider the following question, How might the cultural norms in an organization encourage an environment ripe for workplace violence?

Statistics from the FBI indicate that there were 250 active shooter incidents in the United States from 2000 to 2017 – and that the majority (42%) were in areas of commerce (businesses). The trajectory for workplace violence and shooting incidents for 2018 into 2019 show no signs that this risk is abating, and bear in mind these pertain to shootings – the stats for workplace violence incidents using other weapons, or no weapons, are significantly higher.

It has been well established that there are pre-warning signs, “tells” or “leakage” by individuals who are on the pathway towards violence, but that is not the focus of this article per se. Of particular interest is the frequency with which abusive treatment, intimidation, harassment, bullying, physical abuse and other abject behaviors are among the multitude of factors that reportedly influenced the psychological framework of so many who do commit violence in the workplace.

Psychological stress is cumulative. It builds over time: growing in strength, causing frustration, anger, feelings of powerlessness and the inability to relax, among other physical and physiological manifestations. Work environment factors certainly can contribute to the incidence of workplace violence. For example, high levels of work intensity (tight deadlines, working at very high speed), a high number of work pace constraints and working in frequent contact with customers / clients in specific industry sectors can all be associated with a higher likelihood of being bullied.

More specifically, the most frequently cited workplace factors related to bullying include: conflicts among managers and those supervised, a psychologically volatile work atmosphere, authoritarian, passive and pseudo-democratic management, power imbalances between superiors and subordinates, problems of work organization, and general disregard for the principle of fairness and respect of employees.

Now, apply these types of aforementioned workplace factors to an individual who may be under significant psychological stress. Perhaps s/he also has an underlying mental illness. May be abusing drugs or alcohol. And now this person is coming to work where he/she is the target of abusive behaviors (or perhaps the perception of such). Suddenly their work environment may become the very catalyst for an act of violence directed at the workplace, and/or those within and associated with it. My purpose here is NOT to provide a scientific analysis of the psychological elements in one’s propensity for violence, rather, it is to use these well-evidenced elements as the basis for a security leader to consider how their organization’s cultural norms may be a material factor in better assessing the potential for workplace violence incidents to occur in their workplace.

Remarkable to me, is the residual commentary that too often ensues after workplace violence incidents in B-roll interviews: so and so was persistently bullied, we knew so and so was under a lot of stress, so and so’s supervisor was constantly badgering this person…and then so and so just popped one day and this [insert incident type here] happened.

None of this is to suggest that there is, or should be, a lack of personal accountability for the individuals who perpetrate these violent acts. Lots of us experience significant stress, abuse, harassment and other horrible psychological traumas, yet will never be propelled to violence.  This said, given how environmental factors can be an influencing element for violence, it seems prudent to assess how cultural norms in the workplace may be creating conditions that can increase the potential for a workplace violence incident. As a component part of your organizations’ culture, you have some dimension for understanding what behaviors are “acceptable, not acceptable, tolerated, or rejected” - whether this is anecdotal, based upon insights from corporate investigations, partnering with your HR organization or beyond. So how might the cultural norms in your organization be encouraging an environment ripe for workplace violence? And more importantly, what are you doing to influence changes to those cultural norms to mitigate the risk for workplace violence?