Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 8;   February 20, 2008: Responding to Threats: I

Responding to Threats: I

by

Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.

Threats at work are toxic. They create anger, breed fear, destroy relationships, undermine trust, increase turnover, increase demands for pay, stimulate theft and fraud, degrade production quality, and introduce delays and foot-dragging through passive resistance.

A straw-bale house

A home constructed of straw bales by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This home is a demonstration of energy-efficient construction techniques, but among the first straw houses in recorded literature was the one belonging to one of the Three Little Pigs. In the fairy tale, a wolf knocks on the door of the pig that built his house of straw, asking to be invited in. When no invitation is proffered, the wolf threatens, "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down," which he then proceeds to do. This threat is repeated with the second pig, successfully, and finally foiled by the third pig, who built his house of bricks. Nearly every child in Western cultures knows this fairy tale, which seems to teach that threats can be defeated by the appropriate investment of capital.

Examining the history of warfare, it would seem that leaders of many countries have accepted the lesson that capital investment is an effective response to threats. The Great Wall of China and the nuclear arms race are two examples. Yet, outside the land of make-believe, capital doesn't always provide an appropriate response to threats — sometimes it's more effective to think your way out. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Yet people use threats because they believe they work. There are those who believe that threats motivate; that a little bit of fear gets a lot of extra production. Indeed, I do believe that I could produce a study that would buttress this belief — if you will allow me to choose the population studied, and if you will permit me to ignore long-term effects.

But we live in a world in which we must account for long-term effects, and we cannot choose the population we work with. In that world, threats don't actually work.

Since we can't end the use of threats, we'd best learn to work around them. Here's Part I of a short catalog of threats, the particular kinds of consequences they create, and suggestions for dealing with them.

Non-Violent physical threats
Non-violent physical threats are intended to arouse in the target a fear of physical harm. They include looming over the target, standing too close, touching (especially by surprise), surrounding (by several parties), or cornering.
Sometimes physical threats are outside the awareness of the target. For example, a tall person can loom over one of shorter stature with little risk of being accused of threatening because the configuration is "natural."
If you sense that a physical threat — even a subtle physical threat — is in progress, exit the situation with dispatch. Leave the room or walk away if you can. If you lack a real excuse, make one up. When dealing with people who take advantage of their height, try to arrange for seated conversations. If you choose to remain in a physically threatening configuration, understand the likely inevitability of escalation of the nature and severity of the threat, either in the moment, or over a series of similar incidents.
No dessert for you
If you sense that a physical
threat — even a subtle physical
threat — is in progress,
exit the situation with dispatch
Here the threat is the removal of something desirable — a privilege or toy, for example. But to avoid the appearance (and cost) of issuing a threat, it's delivered in a contorted way. Example: "If you tell me what I want to know, you can keep working here."
Some people experience these threats as darkly humorous, and indeed they can be delivered with a wry wink. They make great one-liners in film scripts. But they're still threats and they fool no one. The threatener still pays the price of actually threatening.
When you receive a No-Dessert-For-You threat, be aware that the threatener isn't being cute, funny, or amusing. That veil of sophistication covers, but does not fully conceal, a threat every bit as ruthless as a direct physical threat. More threats are likely to come, and their variety can increase.

Non-Violent Physical threats and No-Dessert-For-You are both fairly common. Next time we'll examine some differences between direct and indirect threats. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Responding to Threats: II  Next Issue

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Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
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