Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 1;   January 2, 2013: Coercion by Presupposition

Coercion by Presupposition

by

Coercion, physical or psychological, has no place in the workplace. Yet we see it and experience it frequently. We can end the use of presupposition as a tool of coercion, but only if we take personal responsibility for ending it.
Timber blowdown in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest

Timber blowdown in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest on July 13, 2009. Timber blowdown is a term that denotes wind damage in forests due to winds felling trees. Although any tree can be blown down by high winds, trees that are near the edges of stands are especially vulnerable. And among those most vulnerable are those near new edges — edges that postdate any severe windstorms and which result from road cuts, skid cuts, thinning, cutting, fire, or recent natural events such as disease, floods, landslides, avalanches, or other similar events. Trees near new edges are more vulnerable because their species might be inappropriate to edge life, or they might have directional wind firmness inappropriate to the new edge. In other words, the individual tree might be making an assumption about what it needs to thrive where it is, but the recent formation of an edge renders that assumption invalid.

Analogous issues can arise for us at work. We might make assumptions in the form of presuppositions of type 1 that are innocent enough, but changes in the organizational context can render those presuppositions inconsistent with career security. And uncovering those problematic presuppositions can be difficult indeed. This is one of the uncertainties of organizational life that makes many of us justifiably uncomfortable about organizational change. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some people use presuppositions to coerce others into accepting responsibilities they don't want or can't fulfill. Here's an example: "Jesse, when can you have this done?" It sounds like an innocent question, and often, it is. But suppose Jesse hasn't yet committed to the task because he's overloaded, as he had politely explained yesterday. And suppose further that the question is asked in a meeting, with colleagues and perhaps Jesse's supervisor looking on (or listening in).

Jesse would be cornered. He would have to choose between acquiescence and contradicting the speaker, and thereby seeming uncooperative. Worse, if he contradicts the speaker, however politely, the speaker might respond with something like, "Whoa, pal, you already committed to doing this. Are you reneging now at this late date?" Some operators might do this even if Jesse had never said or done anything resembling accepting responsibility.

This tactic is difficult to deal with because it contains a presupposition. A swatch of speech or text contains a presupposition if it assumes something, usually implicitly. In the example above, the presupposition is that Jesse has agreed to do the work. (See "The Power of Presuppositions," Point Lookout for September 1, 2004, for more.)

Presuppositions aren't inherently evil. A presupposition can be appropriate when all parties to the exchange are aware of the assumption and agree to it. I call this a Type 1 Presupposition (PS1). But when the recipient of the message is unaware of the presupposition or doesn't agree with it, trouble like Jesse's begins. If the presupposition is inadvertent it's of Type 2 (PS2). If it's intentional, it's Type 3 (PS3).

Here's what you can do about Type 3 presuppositions.

Educate everyone
Ending the use of PS3s begins with learning what they are. Outside the context of any PS3 incident, explain PS3s to others. The word presupposition is familiar to some, but many don't really know what it means.
Recognize PS3s as abuse
PS1s are useful shorthand; PS2s are accidents; PS3s are a We must recognize as abusers any
managers who use presuppositions
to coerce subordinates
form of psychological abuse. We must recognize as abusers any managers who use presuppositions to coerce subordinates.
As a third party, point out presuppositions when they're used
Targets of PS2s and PS3s are vulnerable. Responding safely is difficult. But third party bystanders can respond constructively and forcefully by simply identifying the presupposition. Example: "Wait a minute, I didn't realize Jesse had committed to this task. I'm concerned that he might become overloaded."

One step you can take right away: circulate this essay. If your organization harbors operators who use presuppositions as tools of coercion, you'll do a great deal of good by making people aware of the tactic in advance, even if you can't take overt action "in the moment." It's a small step towards eliminating this form of coercion, but it is a step. Go to top Top  Next issue: Patching Up the Cracks  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrennLUJTfIAXWASguCgner@ChacilrSCyoMOBQqQZKAoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A cup of coffeeMy Boss Gabs Too Much
Your boss has popped into your office for another morning gab session. Normally, it's irritating, but today you have a tight deadline, so you're royally ticked. What can you do?
Theatrical poster for the 1944 film Double IndemnityPolitical Framing: Communications
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some communications tactics framers use.
A group of Emperor PenguinsWhat Do You Need?
When working issues jointly with others, especially with one other, we sometimes hear, "What do you need to make this work?" Your answers can doom your effort — or make it a smashing success.
A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008The Politics of the Critical Path: I
The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
A sea otter and pupPower, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.

See also Workplace Politics and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006Coming November 22: Motivation and the Reification Error
We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
A human marionetteAnd on November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenNuflDMcXUWXwZTMuner@ChacxxITrmvItlDrqLhRoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.