In Part II of this discussion of threats, we examined direct threats. Direct threats are uncloaked, delivered personally, without apology, and with emotional force. We saw how they work and examined some possible responses. In this Part III, we'll turn to indirect threats.
The indirect threat is a seemingly clever tactic for making a threat without appearing to be a threatener. One form is: "If you do (or don't do) X, then they will do Y." For example, "If you don't meet your commitments, you'll have to answer to Joanne."
Direct threats and indirect threats do share something — they both derive power from fear. Direct threats evoke fear of the threatener; indirect threats evoke fear of a third party or a force of nature.
Compared to direct threats, indirect threats seem to the threatener to cause less damage to the relationship between the threatener and the threatened. By making a third party the source of pain and fear, the threatener hopes to gain plausible deniability for the threat. The threatener thereby adopts a pose characterized by, "It was a warning, not a threat."
But sadly for the threatener, indirectness doesn't really provide the insulation sought, especially if the threatener is a leader or a manager of the threatened. Because indirect threats attribute superior power to a third party, those threatened tend to look upon indirect threats as indications of weakness or cowardice on the part of the threatener. They might ask, "Why doesn't he protect us from them?"
Challenging indirect threats is even less effective than challenging direct threats, because a third party is the supposed source of fear and pain. When challenged, the threatener can reply, in our example, "Hey, don't talk to me, talk to Joanne." Or, "Look, it's out of my hands, just get it done." To challenge the threat, you must confront the third party, which can be especially risky if the threat is fictitious.
Working as Challenging indirect threats
is even less effective
direct threatsa subordinate of someone who uses indirect threats as a management or negotiation technique is risky. First, credibility is an issue. Is the threat real? Can it be confirmed? Is it really true that nothing can be done about the threatened consequences? Working for someone who manufactures or misrepresents facts isn't a good place to be.
Second, the indirectness suggests a self-image of weakness on the part of the threatener, which often accompanies actual political weakness. The threatener's organization is thus a ripe target for those peers of the threatener bent on advancing their own status by acquiring or wrecking their peers' organizations. Consider moving on, internally or externally, but soon. If you're likely to have a new boss in the near future, it might be better to choose one yourself than to have one chosen for you. First in this series Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on May 22: Newtonian Blind Alleys: I
- When we decide how to allocate organizational resources, we make assumptions about how the world works. Often outside our awareness, the thinking of Sir Isaac Newton influences our assumptions. And sometimes they lead us into blind alleys. Universality is one example. Available here and by RSS on May 22.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.