Just today, a disgruntled former employee opened fire at a transportation center in Texas, killing one before turning the gun on himself. As Director, Threat and Violence Risk Management at Hillard Heintze, one of my roles is to work with our clinical psychologists and other members of our threat team. Time and time again, I’m asked, “What can we do to prevent a targeted act of violence?” It’s the same question that’s being asked around the country.

Are the Core Fundamentals of Targeted Violence Prevention Enough?

Unfortunately, there is no one answer to preventing targeted violence; however, many experts, such as the Department of Homeland Security, suggest a proactive approach. Over the past ten or so years, being proactive has meant implementing a comprehensive violence prevention program that includes:

  1. Policies addressing inappropriate behaviors and activities
  2. Development of a cross-functional threat assessment team
  3. Delivery of robust education and awareness programs at all levels within the organization, and
  4. Implementation of guidelines and procedures for managing individuals displaying early warning signs of threatening behavior.

More recently, being proactive has also meant implementing some form of active shooter plan and related employee training. Although all these are certainly valuable, I often wonder if there isn’t even more that can be done to prevent targeted violence. Is early recognition of concerning behavior the best we can do? Certainly training employees to respond in an active shooter scenario is prudent, but at that point we are way beyond prevention.

So what more can we do?

In her book Daring Greatly, about shame and vulnerability, researcher and author Brené Brown says that we are “psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging.” Because of this hardwiring, we develop mechanisms, starting in childhood, for coping with the pain we feel from perceived rejection and disconnection. According to Brown, some cope by withdrawing, some try to appease, and others try to gain power by being aggressive and using shame to fight shame.

I find it interesting that many of these coping behaviors and activities can lead to concerning situations and can even escalate to violence if the situation and conditions persist. Even more troubling is that shaming is often baked into our management and teaching cultures in the forms of public criticism, reprimands, and often times subjective reward systems. Instituting policies and procedures designed to address some of these shaming behaviors helps, but doesn’t generally change a culture.

Creating a Culture of Care

With this in mind, couldn’t we be even more proactive in preventing targeted violence by creating cultures and environments where perceived rejection and disconnection are less likely? A culture of respect at all levels, where empathy is valued and accountability for one’s behavior expected; where the need to belong is not used to control behaviors, and where human dignity is more important than performance metrics and rules? Is such a culture possible?

One Organization with a Proactive Mission

Recently, I learned about one organization, PassageWorks, that appears to be moving in this direction and whose approach, aimed at schools, could be modified and adapted for the corporate environment as well.

According to its website, PassageWorks’ mission is “to support educators to integrate social, emotional and academic learning and create relationship-based classrooms that are inclusive, meaningful and engaged.” The organization’s vision “is of an education system in which all young people are supported to develop compassion, character, academic excellence, and a sense of a deep connection to themselves and the world around them.” It’s really nothing new, but something we seem to have forgotten in a society of budget cuts, growing classroom sizes and an obsession with technology that is moving us away from personal communication.

It seems that workplaces and educational institutions with cultures where each member of the population feels supported and deeply connected to themselves and those around them would be less likely to have an incident of violence than those in which members feel bullied, judged, disconnected and misunderstood.

A Ray of Hope

I realize I am going out on a limb here, and perhaps oversimplifying the complex factors involved in an act of targeted violence. Nevertheless, the list of warning signs or pre-incident indicators of targeted violence include many of what Brown says are shame coping responses, such as blaming, disconnection, harassment, verbal abuse and collecting grievances. Many of these coping behaviors are learned at home, in formative years, and are then carried with us to school and into adulthood.

Breaking this cycle through education, awareness and focus on cultural change in our schools and workplaces, then, could have a lasting effect on preventing violence far into the future. Even if my assumption is erroneous, wouldn’t daily life at those schools and workplaces be enriched?

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