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.
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'll allow me to choose the population studied, and if you'll 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.
- Nonviolent physical threats
- Nonviolent 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.
Nonviolent 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 Top Next Issue
Is a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Deniable Intimidation
- Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators
succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding
their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
- Confronting the Workplace Bully: II
- When bullied, one option is to fight back, but many don't, because they fear the consequences. Confrontation
is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
- Unrecognized Bullying: II
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, bystanders,
perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. Confirmation bias is one such
- Covert Verbal Abuse at Work
- Verbal abuse at work uses written or spoken language to disparage, disadvantage, or harm others. Perpetrators
favor tactics they can subsequently deny having used. Even more favored are abusive tactics that are
so subtle that others don't notice them.
- Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms
are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so
easily evades most anti-bullying policies.
See also Workplace Bullying, Workplace Politics and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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