Leading without Aggression

If you work in Ontario, you have likely heard about Bill 168, legislation coming in June. This Bill brings the topics of workplace violence and harassment to the forefront, by inserting broader definitions of unacceptable behaviour into our Occupational Health & Safety Act.  The Act now puts the onus on employers to prevent, not just react to, a hostile work environment.

In a nutshell, this ensures that employees have direct and immediate recourse if they experience workplace behaviour that they find offensive or threatening, including bullying and harassment.  While the Ontario Human Rights Code still applies under specific grounds employees can now raise all such matters, regardless of grounds, as Health and Safety concerns. In certain circumstances employees will even have the right to refuse work.   

Progressive leaders will be paying close attention to this change. Beyond the systemic changes required (see the list further below) lies the personal accountability that all leaders have for creating a safe workplace. Consider these points:

 Leadership behaviours institutionalize culture. It doesn’t matter what kind of culture you think you have, what leaders do is the embodiment of that culture. In too many organizations, leadership behaviours that are aggressive or intimidating are tolerated at the top of the organization chart. The same competitiveness and aggressiveness that is valued and required in the marketplace is not to be tolerated when dealing with employees, customers and stakeholders. The risk of allowing this has just increased.

It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. Every message you deliver has both content and “tone”. Actors and marketers are great at understanding tone and the emotional impact it has. The problem is that we don’t often get specific and useful feedback on our tone. Many leaders are surprised to learn that people find them intimidating or unapproachable. Ask someone you trust, for example a peer or a friend, to give you honest feedback on your body language and vocal delivery. If you can, have yourself videotaped while presenting a message, you will be able to see for yourself how you communicate nonverbally.

Avoid aggressive or strong words. I once coached a leader who freely used swear words when he became excited or annoyed. When I told him that others found those words not just offensive, but aggressive, he was surprised. “I’m not swearing AT them,” he explained. Now is the time to clean up your workplace talk. Find other adjectives to describe things that irritant, frustrate or annoy you. Better yet, use fewer adjectives. Don’t embellish (or pepper) your messages.

Take care to deliver tough messages in a positive or a neutral tone. Do not raise your voice in anger. Do not punctuate your sentences with a pointed finger or a fist on the table. Do not even roll your eyes in disdain, or glare at someone like they just cut you off in traffic. Staring hard at someone is very aggressive and intimidating. Give yourself time to deal with your anger or frustration away from your employee. When you are ready to address issues, do so in a calm and professional way.

Get comfortable discussing behaviours as well as results. Let’s face it, most of us squirm a little when it comes to talking about people’s behaviour. It seems so – judgmental! As a leader in your organization, your job is to coach and mentor others. Under Bill 168 it becomes even more important that you give people feedback on how they interact. Training sessions are fine (and will be needed) but immediate feedback on real situations is best for performance management. Don’t save it up. Privately, and with compassion, let people know about their negative impacts on others, and explain what they need to do or say differently.

Don’t lead others if you don’t like people. This final one is worth saying because of the number of technical experts who feel compelled to take on promotions involving staff leadership, as a career step forward. Not everyone can lead others. A creative organizational structure that rewards senior level contributors would help lower the risk of having people-haters in leadership positions. Now is as good a time as any to rethink your team structure.

As well as reacting to violent or harassing behaviour, organizations must take proactive steps to prevent it. Bill 168 requires each workplace to have: 

  • A workplace violence policy and a workplace harassment policy which is posted.
  • Risk assessments identifying the potential for violence at each worksite.
  • Measures which will control identified risks, including domestic violence which could affect workplace safety.
  • Reporting and investigation procedures for incidents of workplace violence and harassment.
  • Procedures for summoning immediate assistance in the event of violent threats or actions.
  • Communications and training for employees on the organization’s   workplace violence and harassment policies and procedures.

 Special thanks to Mark Hertzberger of Hertzberger HR Consulting for his expertise and for inspiring this newsletter. Mark has had extensive experience dealing with human rights and interpersonal conduct issues in a wide variety of workplace settings. You can reach Mark at 519-581-8127 or at [email protected].

 Copyright 2010 by Epiphany at Work  Reproduction for publication is encouraged with the following attribution:

From “Epiphanies at Work” by Jill Malleck www.epiphanyatwork.com.

One thought on “Leading without Aggression


  1. Great point about blending the legal obligations created by Bill 168 into every day leadership activities. As a workplace human rights advisor, I am often summoned to provide training AFTER bad behaviour has created trauma in the workplace.

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