I was in my car heading to lunch one early February afternoon back in 1993 when a breaking news story on the car radio caught my attention. A gunman at Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. had just gone on a shooting spree in the Tampa company’s cafeteria. It took a minute for the gravity of the story to sink in. Hold on, isn’t that where my sister works?
Scrambling to the nearest payphone, I frantically called my parents asking if they had heard about the shootings. They were both on the line and quickly told me she had just telephoned telling them she had decided to stay in her office for lunch instead of heading to the site of the carnage. In the aftermath, we learned that a former employee who had recently been terminated returned to murder three executives he blamed for his firing. The suspect committed suicide hours later.
When any potential disaster impacts you on a personal level, your perspective immediately changes. Until that moment, violence in the workplace had been something that affected others. It was an aberration or the punch line to some postal worker joke. Even though the horrible reality belies tragic events like that of Patrick Sherrill — a part-time letter carrier who was facing possible dismissal, walked into the Edmond, Oklahoma post office in late 1986 and shot 14 people to death before killing himself.
That incident seemed to trigger a series of fatal workplace shootings around the country that shocked Americans and at the same time raised public awareness of a growing problem, bringing a new phrase — "workplace violence" — into the lexicon. "Going postal" has become a pejorative shorthand phrase for employee violence.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 11,613 workplace homicide victims between 1992 and 2006, which is an average of just under 800 homicides per year.
These statistics are what led John D. Byrnes to begin researching causal factors of aggressive and potentially lethal behavior. His crusade led him to open the Center for Aggression Management more than 15 years ago, where he discovered a method to measure emerging aggressive behavior. "It is only when you are able to measure something that can you truly manage it," Byrnes says. "Human resources, risk managers, security directors — they all depend on certain metrics to ascertain risk and use these metrics to resolve issues. With Aggression Management tools, organizations can use techniques and profiles to help monitor potential violent offenders."
Byrnes, a Florida businessman and now an author and lecturer, became interested in the subject of aggression management when he said he could not find a comprehensive training program dedicated to preventing aggression in the workplace. In his research, Byrnes says he has discovered that conventional approaches dealing with conflict and violence were not working.
His premise is that there were two kinds of aggression: adrenaline-driven Primal Aggression and intent-driven Cognitive Aggression. "The Primal Aggressor, in the extreme, is 'red-faced and ready to explode,' while the Cognitive Aggressor is a person who rises to the level where their goal is to give up their life for a cause," he says. "The Cognitive Aggressor is that type where we see the 'thousand-yard stare,' or, as the Israelis call it — the look of the 'walking dead.' Their body loses animation and there is a profound look of disconnection."
"The problem is that security and law enforcement are still looking for the Primal Aggressor, who is more apt to be that highly volatile personality instead of the more subdued and calculating Cognitive Aggressive type," Byrnes continues. "In many cases, we are looking for the wrong person!"