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Workplace Violence vs. Lone-Actor Terrorism – a False Dichotomy

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How do we manage workplace violence differently from lone-actor terrorism?

I get this question all the time from businesses and schools, large and small. The spirit of the question is sound. The wording is not. Talking about “workplace violence” vs. “lone-actor terrorism” is a false dichotomy. To unpack this confusion and add clarity, we need to dissect the wording.

The workplace is a location, a context, within which a host of grievances can be acted out in vengeful retaliation.

Terrorism is an ideological-based motivation to inflict violence or harm on another. While it may target an individual to make a symbolic point, it’s true target is a group, an idea, a way of life.

Lone-actor merely captures the degree to which the person of interest (POI) is acting in isolation, and independently of material assistance from organized terror groups. This is not an either-or distinction, but occurs on a continuum.

While seemingly a game in semantics, this distinction helps us to differentiate those concepts that really matter to successfully manage a threat- context, motivation, and organization.

  • Context – violence abhors a vacuum, and in fact cannot happen in one. Garrison Keillor said it best many years ago, “That’s what you do when you’re angry at someone, you make them a part of your life.” Anger, revenge, hate, they bind closely, although not in an emotionally positive manner. While it’s important to consider who might commit an act of violence, the context is just as critical – when, where, against what victim pool? Who do they perceive aggrieved them? Are they focused on a single person or objectification of an entire group?
  • Motivation – We cannot narrow down context until we can understand motivation. What is the POI’s justification and motivation to commit the act?  What drives them forward? What might act as a preventive factor in limiting their actualizing a plan of attack? Motivations of the lone-actor can be simpler (as in the case of Jared Loughner’s psychosis), or more complex (as in the case of Omar Mateen in Orlando).
  • Organization– The term lone-actor has received a lot of media attention, and will continue to do so as perpetrators continue to evolve and challenge our concepts. One key distinction which still bears out in the literature is that lone actors, as opposed to enmeshed cell members, show increased levels of isolation from almost everyone in their lives (Meloy & Yakeley, 2014). As such, they are both psychologically and socially less “organized” than those more engrained in active terror cells. Even those who attend religious institutions or other group meetings tend to be on the periphery, rather than driving those groups forward. Many of them (Omar Matteen, Richard Reed, Timothy McVeigh) try to embed themselves in radical groups only to be ostracized, leading them to seek more independent courses of action. This also makes them prone to remote radicalization through social media.

Compounding this, of course, is this age of globalization, internet communication, and social media within which we find ourselves. It is far too easy to have a grievance, develop first steps in a radicalization process, and then find like-minded reinforcing voices from all corners of the global twitterverse to help propel one toward a course of violent action.


By having a clearer view of these concepts, we can better identify risks and manage them effectively.

  • Meloy, JR & Yakelely, J. (2014). The Violent True Believer as a “Lone Wolf” – Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Terrorism. Behavioral Sciences & the Law 32(3) · May

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