Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 44;   November 2, 2005: The Costs of Threats

The Costs of Threats

by

Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships, and create an atmosphere of fear.

As the meeting continued, and her task list grew, Ellie got anxious. Making any changes so close to the demonstration was risky at best. But the number and complexity of these changes meant that she would be working long hours under pressure. So she spoke up. "I'm getting a little worried," she began. "This is a lot of work, and it has to be done right or we could be in trouble."

Threatened and fearfulWarner didn't miss a beat. "We'll be in bigger trouble if it doesn't get done."

Threatening was one of Warner's favorite tactics, and Ellie had had enough. So she called him on it. "Oh? What kind of trouble?"

Warner escalated. "Do you like having a job?"

Ellie and Warner were now officially in a tangle — one of the many serious consequences of using threats as a tool of influence. Their relationship had been in tatters for a while, in part because of Warner's persistent use of threats.

People use threats
because threats seem to
be extremely cheap
People use threats because threats seem to be extremely cheap, if they work. Threats can achieve quick results for very little effort. All you have to do is deliver the threat. But the real costs are high, and they're often invisible to those who threaten.

Eroded credibility
To maintain the credibility of the threat tactic, occasional demonstrations are necessary. But since the goal of most threateners is influence or compliance, and since the threatened typically do comply, opportunities to carry out personal threats are rare. Over time, the threatener's credibility inevitably erodes.
Damaged relationships
Threats erode our sense of safety. They reduce our willingness to disclose anything that might add to our sense of fear. These conditions lead to distrust and speculation, and they make healthy relationships difficult.
Feelings of resentment
When threats are personal, as Ellie experienced with Warren, they can lead to resentment and an I'll-show-them attitude. For instance, the threatened might engage in conspiracies of silence or even of action. Those less comfortable with overtly destructive acts might choose passively destructive acts, such as withholding information about problems for which they aren't directly responsible.
Decline in motivation and creativity
People who feel threatened might begin to husband their output, reserving it for use when they need to respond to the next threat. Certainly the atmosphere on the job becomes unpleasant, and the thrills become hard to find. The threatened often adopt a get-through-the-day attitude.

If you're subjected to threats at work, and you notice the effects on your level of joy, do what you can to lift yourself above it. Recognize the emptiness of the threatener's toolkit, and resolve to find a different way to influence people yourself.

If you use threats now and then, I hope you'll look for alternatives. Or else. Go to top Top  Next issue: Empire Building  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!

One form of threat people feel comfortable using is the indirect threat. The comfort comes from the ambiguity of the threat; if "caught," the threatener can claim, "Oh, I didn't mean that." Despite the indirectness, the threat is still destructive. For more on indirectness, see "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006.

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See also Workplace Bullying and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

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Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
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Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.

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