Dave Logan, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and the co-founder and senior partner of the workplace culture consulting firm CultureSync, is a co-author of Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build Thriving Organizations, a book examining organizational culture within companies.

Logan told OccupationalHazards.com that he and his co-authors studied intact social networks, or “tribes,” in the workplace. Tribes are not necessarily departments or teams, but are natural groups of people who talk to each other at work. Each tribe, he said, falls into one of five categories.

Stage 1.This is the “danger zone,” the stage where workplace violence occurs. Just under 2 percent of American employees may fall into this category and maintain a prevailing negative attitude on life, Logan explained. People in this category may behave in a hostile manner, alienate themselves from others and commit theft or acts of violence.

Stage 2. Logan said about 25 percent of tribes fall into this stage, only one step away from Stage 1. People in this stage are apathetic and feel they are victims, their voices don’t count and that there’s no point in trying. While Stage 1 employees may have the mindset that “life sucks,” Logan explained Stage 2 individuals instead think, “my life sucks.”

Stage 3. Employees in this stage tend to have an “I’m great and you’re not” attitude, which can result in workplace bullying and drive other employees down into Stage 2. A bully may boss everyone around, shut employees down and think only his or her own ideas are worthwhile. Think of Steve Carell’s character on The Office, Logan said, to get an idea of the typical person in this stage. “Ironically, it’s managers who try to solve everybody’s problem and take control who actually tend to foster that kind of environment,” he pointed out.

Stage 4. In this stage, everyone comes together with a sense of shared values, and ego problems tend to fall away. The prevailing mindset is “We’re great and they’re not,” with “they” being either an outsider or the competition. While there is an “us against them” mentality, it is generally a friendly, not hostile, rivalry.

Stage 5. Only about 2 percent of workplaces fall into this category, where people feel that life is great. These workers are in competition not with a rival, but with what’s possible. “Those are the companies that make unprecedented leaps of innovation,” Logan said.

Preventing a Downward Slide

When writing Tribal Leadership, Logan said he and his co-authors set out to determine how managers could move their employees to a higher stage. In the process, however, they discovered how important it is to be on the lookout for employees sinking into lower stages.

Tribes only move up or down one stage at a time, but this progression can be rapid. Logan cites the decline of the once-thriving dot-com era, when employees quickly dropped from Stages 4 or 5 all the way to Stage 1.

“It can happen very quickly,” Logan said. “The good news is that this also means that ascent can happen quickly.”

Logan pointed out that government offices, banks, the judicial system and companies going through rapid layoffs or restructuring may face a higher risk for workplace violence. Considering that 25 percent of employees fall into Stage 2, he said it’s imperative to ensure that these workers don’t descend into Stage 1.

Warning Signs

“Across the country, we’re seeing a collapse of community, and that’s a problem,” Logan said.

He pointed out that today’s struggling economy makes workers especially vulnerable to moving down a stage. Currently, he said, many workers seem to feel that banks, financial institutions and other groups are causing their problems. Logan compares this situation to the Great Depression, when a similar mentality prevailed. Managers, therefore, need to watch for warning signs to ensure their workers don’t reach the point where they think nothing matters and that anything – including violence – is justified.

Petty theft or any kind of criminal behavior, no matter how minor, indicates that an employee is in Stage 1, Logan said. These workers don’t feel a situation is fair, so they rationalize that anything they do is permissible.

A less obvious sign that a worker is in danger of Stage 1 is alienation.

“When you see people at work systematically cutting every single tie they have so that they’re very much alienated and alone, that’s the warning sign the individual is dipping into Stage 1,” Logan explained. “It’s amazing how manager don’t see the alienation until it’s too late.”

Solutions

Paying attention to how coworkers interact is a simple but important way to recognize and prevent potentially dangerous situations.

“The first thing a manager needs to do is to notice these naturally occurring groups, these tribes,” Logan said. “Just notice who talks to whom.”

The second step is to notice the general theme employees use when they interact to determine what stage they may be in. For workers in Stage 1 who have alienated themselves from others, managers must work to draw them out. Having even one person to talk to or confide in can make all the difference for an employee in Stage 1.

“It doesn’t take a lot of people,” Logan said. “It just takes one.”

For Stage 2 employees, managers should seek out the employees who crave change and mentor them – individually, and away from the rest of the tribe – to help them transition into Stage 3. For Stage 3 tribes, build initiatives around the values and principles workers hold dear. To encourage a shift into Stage 4, introduce employees who share the same values. Finally, to make a push for Stage 5, start asking questions about what would make history.

“If leaders focus on upgrading tribes, then they really don’t need to worry about workplace violence,” Logan said. “But we can demonstrate that workplace injuries go down, sick days go down and worker engagement goes up” when tribes ascend through the stages.

“Everybody wins when you build these higher performing stages,” he added.