Business Psychology

Article No. 385
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Target on Your Back

Am I in danger?

It may surprise you to learn this question haunts many people, but it does. It lurks in the in-between spaces of our internal dialogue, and it often lingers more than we suspect.

We're aware of tasks which occupy our time and attention. We're aware of relationships and recent interactions we've had. But we may not be aware that we're always watching out for danger, and signals from our environment can send a shiver of threat and fear welling up from somewhere deep inside. These shivers of nearby danger color our moods and interfere with our actions, especially at work. That's a finding revealed in research conducted by Angelica Leigh from Duke University and Shimul Melwani from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Leigh and Melwani explored the impacts of mega-threats and their ability to trigger an experience of embodied threat in some people. They found this, but they went further. They explored who experiences this and how the experience of embodied threat is revealed in changes in work behavior. Finally, they demonstrated how managers can mitigate these effects and protect both individuals experiencing embodied threat and the organizations where they work.

Here's what all that means:

When someone is hurt or killed, it sometimes attracts significant attention from the news media. When this happens, it can become a mega-threat, meaning large and expansive. For example, consider the case of George Floyd.

When George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, we all watched his last agonized breaths and his futile pleas for help, and it deeply affected us all. It was a policeman making a routine arrest! We all interact with the police, so we abruptly had a new thought that would come to mind the next time we interacted with a policeman or even thought of doing so: the murder of George Floyd. This is a mega-threat.

There was nothing sinister about George Floyd, but he did have qualities that he shared with many others. He was a Black man who lived in a community policed by white officers. There are tens of millions of other Black men and boys who could just as easily have been pinned beneath the knee of Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who killed him. For many of those tens of millions, a shiver of threat rose from somewhere deep inside when they learned the details of George Floyd's death. That shiver of threat is understood by Leigh and Melwani to be an embodied threat. It was a reaction to the mega-threat that made it personal. "It could have been me." When this connection is made, the person is experiencing an embodied threat. There is danger nearby, and it's getting closer. This is a very uncomfortable feeling.

When a person is experiencing an embodied threat, it affects their reactions to their environment. Consider, for example, the actions of a young Black man who has been stopped by a white police officer in the days following the murder of George Floyd. You can forgive him for being terrified as he waits for the officer to appear at his driver-side window. "What," he asks himself, "is going to happen to me?"

The young man's actions in this encounter will also likely influence the police officer. This officer may also be slightly terrified about what the young Black man is going to do. To the officer, he looks like a criminal who has been caught in the act of committing some crime and is now very nervous, perhaps nervous enough to do something foolish.

Now, replace the white police officer with a white supervisor at work. That's what Leigh and Melwani did next, and they found strong effects. They found that people experiencing embodied threat avoided work tasks and reduced their engagement with both the work and with their coworkers. They took a step back to a safer place, and they tried to get past their bad feelings of being in danger.

People experiencing embodied threat are compelled by their discomfort to find ways to relieve their bad feelings. Leigh and Melwani call it threat suppression. It takes energy. It commands attention, and it requires a strategy. It also leaves behind scraps of evidence of its presence: threat suppression has interfered with a person's life on the job. Leigh and Melwani were able to identify, observe, and measure these threat-suppression effects.

Work environments vary in their psychological safety, and white supervisors vary in their willingness to listen to their workers express strong emotions. Employees in the grip of fear as they experience embodied threat need someone to listen to them. They need to pour out their troubled thoughts and do so without censure, and that's exactly what Leigh and Melwani found was the antidote for the negative effects of embodied threat. When the setting was safe enough for people to express themselves freely, work avoidance and social disengagement disappeared. People experiencing embodied threat did not need to employ threat suppression tactics to relieve their distress.

I have used racial embodied threats to illustrate this process, but others experience similar reactions to mega threats and embodied threats. Women may react to an incident of gender directed violence. LGBTQ+ people may react to violence targeted toward them. Asians, Muslims, and Jews experience embodied threats, and even older people may respond to targeted violence toward them and experience embodied threats.

People get up in the morning and go to work to get a paycheck and pay the bills. But they go to work and work their hearts out to please someone important to them. Someone who will notice. Someone who cares about them and wants them to do well. That's the supervisor. Leigh and Melwani have discovered that supervisors who create safety in this relationship allow people to work through their bad feelings of embodied threat and also get the work done. It's one of the reasons we need supervisors.

Reference: Leigh, Angelica and Shimul Melwani (2022) "AM I NEXT?" THE SPILLOVER EFFECTS OF MEGA-THREATS ON AVOIDANT BEHAVIORS AT WORK. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 65(3), 720-748.

© Management Resources

Keywords: Threat, prejudice, work avoidance, supervision
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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