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Performance Under Pressure: Will Employees Remember How To Respond To Violence?

In high-stress situations, how information is received, processed, remembered, and acted upon all changes. It’s critical that workplace violence prevention and active assailant response plans are aligned with the behavioral realities of performance under pressure.

By Steve Crimando, MA, CTM

On a good day, many people struggle to remember where they left their keys or eyeglasses. In high-stress situations memory and performance can degrade, potentially putting people at risk in emergencies, disasters, or violent events. There are very few incidents that are more stressful and frightening than an active assailant attack. Fear has been said to be our “oldest and strongest emotion.”1 It triggers an incredibly fast and powerful physiological response that while aiding in our survival, also comes at a cost in terms of cognition and problem-solving abilities. Regardless of where violent incident may occur, there is likely to be complete chaos, overwhelming levels of noise, confusion, alarm sounding, and possibly graphic or gruesome sights with frightened people frantically attempting to run or hide, possibly unwilling or unable to respond to directions.

As one of the earliest theories of psychology, the Yerkes-Dodson law2 established that while some level of stress is necessary to get people into the “zone”; functioning most effectively, high levels of stress quickly begin to degrade performance. Expecting employees to remember what they have learned in workplace violence prevention and/or active assailant training during an actual life-threatening event is a big ask. When developing training addressing potentially high-stress and high-fear scenarios, it is not enough to understand adult learning theory3 or educational design, those involved with safety, security and emergency management programs must also have an understanding of human behavior under pressure.

The Yerkes-Dodson Curve 4

For example, Mental Noise Theory5 holds that when people are highly stressed, they often have difficulty hearing, understanding, and remembering information. Under such conditions they often lose as much as 80 percent of the information that is communicated to them.

Applied to workplace violence prevention and active assailant response, these observations of human behavioral under pressure can be helpful in the development of information used to train and guide employees, students, and students in more effectively responding to terrifying events. It is important to craft workplace violence prevention and active assailant training models using “sticky learning” ideas to help trainees better retain and be able to access critical information during times of acute stress.

For an individual who becomes aware of dangerous or concerning behavior that may be indicative of a risk of violence, or those who are the witnesses or victims of violence in the workplace, stress and fear can cloud judgement and impair the ability to recall important action steps. While there may be a good deal of important information organizations feel they must share with employee, the core concepts that everyone should know can be distilled down to the “four Rs;” that is understanding how to recognize, report, respond to, and recover from a concern, threat or act of workplace violence.

workplace violence, response
During an active assailant attack, fear is so powerful that cognitive functioning can be reduced to primal survival behavior. (Photo: Adobe Stock / New Africa)

Recognizing workplace violence potential when one encounters it begins with understanding:

  • What is considered a workplace?
  • What communications and/or behaviors constitute workplace violence?
  • The types and sources of workplace violence

Reporting involves:

  • The organization’s position on encouraging vs. mandating reporting
  • Anonymous, confidential mechanisms for making reports
  • Understanding the organization’s prohibition on retaliation for those reporting


  • The definition of an active assailant
  • The dynamics of active assailant attacks
  • Critical actions steps: Run, Hide, Fight
  • How to interact with responding police


  • Meeting at designated assembly areas
  • Providing basic medical and emotional support
  • Handling media inquires
  • Using Employee Assistance and other mental health support

During an active assailant attack, fear is so powerful that cognitive functioning can be reduced to primal survival behavior. Employees and others are unlikely to remember details learned in violence prevention or active assailant training. It is important to pare training down to the most essential action step. The basics include:

Run = Putting as much time and distance between yourself and the threat
Hide = Using cover and concealment to protect yourself
Fight = Attack the attacker. Attempt to distract, disrupt or disarm the assailant

It can be difficult to measure the success of violence prevention programs since it is difficult to report on incidents that did not occur due to violence prevention efforts. But here’s a simple test of the “stickiness” of your training. One year after providing training, ask any randomly selected employe, “What are the most important things to know about workplace violence prevention?” If they can tell you, “I know the four Rs: how to recognize, report, respond and recover,” you have done a great job. If you ask them how to make themselves safe and survive and active assailant incident, if they can tell you, “I know how to run, hide and fight,” and that. “Run means cover and concealment; hide means time and distance; and fight means attacking the attacker,” you and your organization are saving lives. To make violence prevention and active assailant training count, make it sticky!

Steve Crimando, MA, CTM is the founder and principal of Behavioral Science Applications LLC. He is a Certified Threat Manager with the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals and a Certified Master Trainer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security-National Threat Evaluation and Reporting program. He is a published author and expert to the courts and the media on workplace violence prevention and intervention, and has assisted organizations worldwide in the prevention, response and recovery from incidents of violence for the past 35 years.


1 H.P. Lovecraft, Digital Papyrus (2014). “H.P. Lovecraft: The Ultimate Collection (160 Works Including Early Writings, Fiction, Collaborations, Poetry, Essays & Bonus Audiobook Links)”,

2 Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The Relation of Strength of Stimulus to Rapidity of Habit-Formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.

3 Knowles, Malcolm; Holton, E. F. III; Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier. ISBN 978-0-7506-7837-7. LCCN 2004024356


5 Covello, V. T. (2010). Strategies for overcoming challenges to effective risk communication. In Handbook of risk and crisis communication (pp. 143–167).

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