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.
- Non-Violent physical threats
- Non-violent 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:
- Hurtful Clichés: II
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
- 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.
- Confronting the Workplace Bully: I
- When a bully targets you, you have three options: accept the abuse; avoid the bully or escape; and confront
or fight back. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
- How Targets of Bullies Can Use OODA: I
- Most targets of bullies just want the bullying to stop, but most bullies don't stop unless they fear
for their own welfare if they continue the bullying. To end the bullying, targets must turn the tables.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: I
- Most meetings have chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the chair "owns"
the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This
view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.