At the Frontline: Center for Aggression Management President John Byrnes

As more and more incidents of workplace and school shootings dominate headlines across the country, security managers find themselves looking for ways to identify potential threats before they manifest themselves into acts of violence.

Often the warning signs exhibited by those responsible for bringing terror to their local communities are not recognized by security. According to violence prevention expert John Byrnes, however, many times warning signs are apparent but security personnel are not looking at the right personality or character traits to discern an angry person from someone committed to carrying out an act of terror.

In this "At the Frontline," Byrnes, who is the founder and president of the Center for Aggression Management, discusses some of the strategies he and his organization have developed over the past 15 years to help combat workplace violence and the tell-tale signs of potential violent persons that security managers need to on the lookout for.

In your opinion, how has workplace and school violence evolved over the years and how have prevention efforts progressed with those threats?

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, I was scheduled to speak at a nurse's association and I had 1,300 nurses that attended my presentation. I asked them to raise their hand if they felt less safe today than they did five years ago and virtually everybody raised their hand. We live in a culture of emerging aggression. We hear more and more about the murder/suicide. We're hearing more and more about this throughout our culture and our community. And our workplace is a microcosm of our community and this is influencing us in our own workplace. This is an emerging issue and we can blame things around us for this, but the reality is that it exists and it's progressive.

There are no prevention efforts in my opinion because if you are using conflict resolution you are reacting to conflict. The reality is we are reacting to these things, not preventing it. The only way to prevent it is to have a continuum. What we have produced is a continuum of aggression that shows aggression from its outset through its ultimate expression in violence. It is only when you have a continuum of aggression that you can actually see aggression coming. It gives you the ability to engage with skills to defuse it and everyone wins. The perpetrator wins because they're not a perpetrator. The victim wins because they are not a victim and they are empowered. And, the organization wins profoundly, because the cost of that grievance to productivity, to legal fees and to all the other things (associated with an incident of workplace violence) is also profound.

What are some of the characteristics that you've identified as being central to the personality of someone who commits an act of workplace or school violence?

What you're asking is how can you profile a school shooter or a workplace shooter? In other words, what kind of characteristics do you look for that might be in place and the reality is that the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education did a study to identify a school shooter and... here are two points they make. "The use of profiles is not effective either for identifying a student who may pose the risk of targeted violence at school or once a student has been identified, for assessing the risk a particular student may pose for school-based targeted violence." What they identified and what we've known all along is that what profiling does do for you is that it tells you within a certain group of people there's a higher probability of a shooter. The problem is it does not tell you who the next shooter is, hence the rub.

The study goes on to the second part and this is the key, "an inquiry should focus instead on a student's behavior and communication to determine if a student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack." In other words, it is essential that you identify the emergence of aggression, if you're going to identify a school or workplace shooter. And that has been the basis of our work for the past 15 years.

What is the difference between cognitive aggression and primal aggression?

Primal aggression is built upon the primal instincts of fight or flight. It is fueled by adrenaline. It is the connection between aggression, the production of adrenaline, the increase of the heart rate and the resulting body language and behavior that we can identify and measure. The moment we discovered this we also realized that this was the aggression of someone losing control. So what about conscious, deliberate aggression? It didn't fit. For years people tried to put it in the same place, it just doesn't fit, so we developed cognitive aggression.

Cognitive aggression is deliberate or conscious aggression or non-conscious in that someone repeats it enough that they no longer give it a lot of thought and they become a vicious person. To this end, this is built on intent and it's really quite simple. What is your intent with a person or persons? Is it your interest and theirs for a win-win as it ought to be or is it your interest and to their detriment? In other words, you intend to victimize this person, you are becoming a victimizer. To this end, we have nine clearly defined levels of cognitive aggression. The first group is the victimizers. The next group is the predators. The highest level, the ninth level of cognitive aggression is the terrorist, the person who wants to evoke terror in the mind of their victim.

Click here to see a PDF chart examining the differences between a primal aggressor and a cognitive aggressor.

How important are workplace violence prevention programs to stopping an aggressor? What are the hallmarks of a good violence prevention program?

The hallmark is a continuum of aggression. That's when we talk to people we talk about policies and procedures as all being reactionary, but when you include the continuum into policy and procedure you can now make (your security program) more preventive. If you have someone who is normally pragmatic, they're methodical, they've got their act together, but today they come in scattered and disjointed, what does that tell you? It means they are not coping with whatever their anxiety is. Profiling would say they came from a bad home; they have all kinds of problems, whatever it is. The point is, in this case, they're not coping. As long as we are coping, as dynamic as it may be, as high and low as it may be, as long as we are coping then everything is copasetic. When we stop coping, when one trigger begins to accumulate on top of the next, we enter into the escalation phase and what I call "mounting anxiety." How does mounting anxiety differ from other forms of anxiety? It changes us our behavior, our body language and through our communication indicators we can identify these changes.

We suggest that you invest a little of your time and talent to go to (this person who isn't coping) in a genuine and caring way and you say to them, "you look a little bit anxious today, tell me about it," and shut up. Remember, it is difficult for an aggressor to aggress against someone who they think is on their side. So typically, they begin to start opening up with you and when they are, they are diminishing their anxiety. Guess what, you've just engaged this person prior to conflict and prevented what could have become conflict in the future. You have to get out in front of conflict if you want to prevent any subsequent violence.

What kind of role do you think our culture plays in incidents of workplace and school violence?

We could spend hours talking about the influences of our culture on the emergence of aggression around us. As an example, we talk about schools and everybody says parents need to take more responsibility for their children, and you know what, that is a correct answer. But you know what the reality is, they aren't. So the reality that we have, if we actually want to prevent (these acts of violence), regardless of what our culture is doing around us, we have to be able to engage (the potential aggressor) before this becomes lethal. Everyone out there, all security and law enforcement personnel are reading (these warning signs of aggression) intuitively... but people are not prepared to put their reputation or jobs on the line based on intuition alone. So they say nothing (about the warning signs) and it becomes an incident. That's why it's so essential we have these measures.