“How Do We Manage the Fear?”

Stephen White, Ph.D.

Spring, 2018


Threat assessment team members in organizational settings increasingly raise this question. Mature programs promote a “see something, say something” culture. We want people to report situations of concern and they do, increasingly so. Denial of potential risk (“Oh, that’s just Charlie being Charlie.”) is less often the problem in this day and age. We all are vigilant to identify and actively manage the serious cases, but in these settings the vast majority of reported scenarios involve individuals who, in the ultimate opinion of the team (or their assessment experts), are judged to not pose a risk of harm. The situation, although perhaps complex, can otherwise be managed and resolved. But when the inhouse team members offer their opinion to their anxious clientele, they are increasingly met with pushback: “How do you know for sure? These things are happening every day!”

One view is that such statements are a reflection of availability bias. This is the tendency to be overly influenced by events that are more recent or easily come to mind. Often because they elicited an emotional reaction and are thus more memorable. Reasoning and decision-making are then affected when assessing a new and unique situation. Risk is rare. Threats are frequent and so is fear.

This is not a new issue and we are mindful that safety is very personal.  As I often say in training – risk level aside – “fear is a signal that something is wrong.” The “something” could be a serious threat, or a number of other things. For instance, a dysfunctional, rowdy and poorly managed work group – a breeding ground for bullies. Because of the increasing frequency of sensational mass murders[1], however, and the steady, ongoing occurrence of other “less dramatic” homicides, it takes very little these days for the “exposed” to become very alarmed. Victims in these situations are, for the most part, less interested in the deliberate work of threat assessment with all its nuances, thoughtful deliberation and patience required. They want concrete measures, such as protective orders, armed security, direct intervention with a subject by law enforcement, removing or hardening targets, and surveillance. Such measures are indeed menu options, but as we know, any well-intentioned action can have unintended consequences, and can lead to extended, sometimes extraordinary expense.

There are situations, objectively assessed as very low or no-risk, where security measures are put in place mainly as a reassurance to the people affected and “out of an abundance of caution.” There is nothing wrong with this, as long as the team and management are aware of the impact of increased and more visible security at an organizational site. Although some people will feel reassured, others may become more anxious – “He must really be dangerous. Look at the extra security!” This must be addressed as well, to minimize emotional spin, which can become a force of its own in an organizational community.

So, what else can be done? These pointers may be a review for some or appear obvious, but are intended as guidelines to better serve our clientele, especially when we may disagree with them on how serious of a risk a matter at hand may pose:

  • First, you must do the work – the work of an adequate threat assessment. You can’t present to others as competent, confident, and thus authoritative if you haven’t met the standards of investigating and making sense of what is “reasonably knowable” and corroborating with independent data sources to the extent possible. In this piece I won’t go through all the possible elements and variations of an assessment, but just restate the due diligence principles: Is your opinion and recommended course of action based on a reasonable belief, generated by adequate information, and gathered in an effective and unbiased fashion? Did you thoughtfully and accurately assess the facts and their practical implications? As always and to the degree you were uncertain, did you confer with others more experienced than yourself? These are the questions you will be asked should you ever have the experience of being challenged on a witness stand.
  • Be visible and available for those who are worried and/or responsible for the safety of others in the organization. Keep them updated if information or your opinion changes. This is a basic principle of organizational crisis intervention – lead and communicate. Assess the context and depending on the individuals or group involved, communicate more frequently. Some people may be reluctant to speak up, but they may be ruminating, as well as venting with each other. The fear continues, and because they feel helpless, their anger will rise. You need to hover as appropriate to the situation or they will feel abandoned. Explain how you monitor ongoing cases and, depending on the case facts, to what degree.
  • Let people disagree with you, regardless of their level of knowledge. Hear them out. People who are afraid want to be heard. They are also testing you. You might learn something you didn’t know that will lead to an adjustment of your opinion or how you might accommodate someone. Check out any discrepancies. One new fact can change everything.
  • Use key encounters as teaching moments to succinctly educate the audience and stakeholders to the principles of threat assessment. Boil it down to a few minutes, that it is a rational process anchored in known evidence-based risk and protective factors, requiring also discretion, judgment, and flexibility, and that any action can lead to unintended consequences, for example the “hasty termination.” We are educators if nothing else.
  • If you or your team are not sure as to what the risk may be, say so. We never have as much information as we would like. But there is a difference between an appropriate degree of humility because of the inherent unknowns, versus coming across as not having done your homework or being out of your depth.
  • To this point, send your most qualified messengers. Do not send lesser experienced team members or other management messengers to inform the clientele of your opinion that the risk is low or none in a context where the level of fear is high. The audience will sense any lack of experience or confidence. The bigger the gap between these two points – low level of risk but high fear – the more you want your most experienced, resilient, and confident threat assessment team member to deliver the message and address the reactions.
  • Do not bend to pressure to exaggerate or overstate your opinion of risk. A tenet of threat assessment is to call it as you see it, along with the implications for action, including the option to just “watch and wait.”
  • In no/low-risk scenarios, offer an alternative explanation for the “behaviors of concern” or the situation. For example, “In our opinion, the individual’s communicated threats were intended to intimidate and control the target, but not an indication of actual intent to harm.” Situations involving individuals who are acutely psychotic invariably raise fears among colleagues and bystanders. A response such as the following may be appropriate: “Although the individual is indeed acting in a bizarre, irrational manner and we have taken appropriate action to remove him from the workplace, there is, at this point, an absence of fixation, violent ideas or planning in any utterances.” (Remember – the “absence” of evidence for a risk factor is not the same as “insufficient information.” In the latter case there is more work to do if data sources are reasonably available.) You can also acknowledge the obvious – behaviors that have been observed by everyone (e.g., bizarre talk) without revealing confidential information or actions taken (e.g., diagnoses and treatment interventions if known to you).
  • Engage your designated threat assessment experts, to help you craft messages that fit the case, and or to appear themselves and conduct face-to-face debriefings when feelings are running high. This can be very helpful when either your own team lacks sufficient experience, or the case is complex. The professional must agree with your opinion of course so that authority and confidence are both projected.
  • Connect any EAP support to your case management protocol. Some organizations may enlist their employee assistance professionals to help support those experiencing continuing preoccupation, anxiety and related problems such as sleep disturbance. If this is to be effective the EAP professionals must be given some official explanation of the case and how it is being managed. They need to be a part of the extended team and to understand enough about threat assessment principles, do’s and don’ts, and the organization’s protocol, etc. If they are not, a consequence may be that the counselor actually heightens anxiety by “empathizing” with fear in a vacuum, only knowing about the case facts from the referred employee. Fundamentally, to feel safe, people seek information and want action. Just listening to their feelings may be experienced by them as being brushed aside. However, there is merit to identifying targeted individuals who have a significant history of victimization or loss. For instance, some who have lost a relative or close friend to a murder may need special and more private counseling support to deal with their re-ignited trauma.
  • Ask, “What do you need to feel safe?” if other measures are ineffective. Target hardening – moving someone away from perceived harm for a reasonable amount of time – is an option. As I say in such instances, risk or not, “If he can’t find you, he can’t harm you.” This is also the least expensive security measure.

As my own experience, confidence, and presumed competence has increased over the past 30 years, I am increasingly comfortable – when confidently relying on my own assessment work – to say to someone, “If you were a member of my own family I would tell you it is safe to work here. I would sit right next to you.” This may sound presumptuous, risky or brash, and we must never give false assurances. But there is a significant haystack of targeted violence false positives – cases where the concern is legitimate, some signs and risk factors are present – but the motive and intent to harm are ultimately found to be absent. Things are bad enough in the era of the active shooter. Fear is debilitating to individuals and can control a work environment. We should work to reduce unnecessary fear when we can. 

[1] FBI (2018). Active shooter incidents in the United States in 2016 and 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/active-shooter-incidents-us-2016-2017.pdf/view