Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 27;   July 7, 2004: Believe It or Else

Believe It or Else

by

When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
Bull Elk Antler Sparring for Dominance in their herd

Bull elk antler sparring for dominance in their herd. The larger bull elk is certainly winning in this contest for who is strongest and deserves the right to rule the herd. This is a common occurrence when the female and male elk are in rut. The configurations of antlers vary from bull to bull, but most configurations are such that the bulls can easily disengage once locked. From time to time, though, two bulls can actually lock antlers in a way in which they cannot disengage, and that event can lead to the deaths of both.

Using fear as a tool of "persuasion" can lead to outcomes based on fear, rather than the merits of the issues involved. And bad outcomes, like antler-locking, can be dangerous for all parties.

Photo and caption courtesy ForestWander.com.

Despite the group's gathering consensus to the contrary, Eric was determined to have his work included in the Marigold release. In desperation, Eric felt he had no recourse. "OK, that's fine," he said. "I'll just take my case directly to the customer and we'll see what happens then."

Loren steamed, but outwardly kept her cool. Calmly, she said, "And that just might be a career-threatening move. I strongly advise you to reconsider."

If the team yields to Eric's threat, it won't be deciding the issue on its merits, which could lead to a serious error. And if Loren's coercion succeeds, she'll gain only Eric's intimidated compliance — a weak foundation on which to build a team.

Here are three popular ways to use fear to persuade others to accept our points of view.

The offer you can't refuse
Named for a ploy described in The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. We accept the assertion because of the high cost of rejecting it. Sometimes called a scare tactic, or argumentum ad baculum it can vary in intensity. Eric is using a relatively low-intensity form, while Loren's is somewhat more intense. Threats of physical violence are the extreme form.
Appeal to adverse consequences
When failure of the assertion implies a consequence we'd rather not accept, we sometimes "conclude" that the assertion must be true. Example: "The problem must be in their design, because if it isn't in theirs, it's in ours."
Begging terrifying questions
Using fear as
a tool of debate
begets compliance,
not heartfelt support
Using terror in combination with begging the question, we accept the assertion because of a scary secondary assertion that we never actually test, because fear takes over. Example: "If we use that approach, the project will be at least three months late." We might ask, 'Why will it be late? Why three months late and not two months late?' But we rarely ask — we're too terrified.

When people use fear either in debate or to forge "buy-in," your organization pays a price — in flawed decisions, and in compliance instead of heartfelt support. What can you do about fear tactics?

Stop
Don't use these techniques yourself. Replace them with a new pattern of honest debate and legitimate, respectful persuasion on the merits.
Educate
Educate people about scare tactics, the appeal from adverse consequences, and begging terrifying questions. Discuss the adverse consequences of using these tactics.
Frame the problem
Using these methods is either an ethical issue or a performance issue. Using them with the intention to deceive is unethical. Using them unknowingly is a performance issue.

Allowing someone else to use fear in debate or persuasion without taking action of some kind, might be both an ethical issue and a performance issue. And it might not — your job status does limit your responsibility to act when you notice someone using the technique. Whatever your status in the organization, though, beware of the adverse consequences of not thinking clearly. Go to top Top  Next issue: Those Across-the-Board Cuts That Aren't  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

The former New York skylineMarking Grief
Grief is usually a private matter, but for many, September Eleventh is different because our grief can be centered in the workplace. On September Eleventh, give yourself permission to do what you need for yourself, and give others permission to do what they need for themselves. Here are some choices.
A happy dogWhy Dogs Wag Their Tails
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
Two fingers pointing at each otherIntimidation Tactics: Touching
Workplace touching can be friendly, or it can be dangerous and intimidating. When touching is used to intimidate, it often works, because intimidators know how to select their targets. If you're targeted, what can you do?
ScissorsThose Across-the-Board Cuts That Aren't
One widespread feature of organizational life is the announcement of across-the-board cuts. Although they're announced, they're rarely "across-the-board." What's behind this pattern? How can we change it to a more effective, truthful pattern?
The musical energy behind "Shall We Dance" (1937)What We Don't Know About Each Other
We know a lot about our co-workers, but we don't know everything. And since we don't know what we don't know, we sometimes forget that we don't know it. And then the trouble begins.

See also Emotions at Work, Effective Communication at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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