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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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