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.
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Responding to Threats: III
- Workplace threats come in a variety of flavors. One class of threats is indirect. Threateners who use
the indirect threats aim to evoke fear of consequences brought about not by the threatener, but by other
parties. Indirect threats are indeed warnings, but not in the way you might think.
- Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II
- Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review
of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
- The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
- Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both
enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps
to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
- So You Want the Bullying to End: II
- If you're the target of a workplace bully, ending the bullying can be an elusive goal. Here are some
guidelines for tactics to bring it to a close.
- We Can 'Moneyball' Bullying
- Capturing data about incidents of bullying is helpful in creating awareness of the problem. But it's
like trying to drive a car by looking only in the rearview mirror. Forward-looking data that predicts
bullying incidents is also necessary.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
- 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.
- And on March 13: On Anticipating Consequences
- Much of what goes wrong when we change systems to improve them falls into a category we call unanticipated consequences. Even when we lack models that can project these results accurately, morphological analysis that can help us avoid much misery. Available here and by RSS on March 13.
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