Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 11;   March 12, 2008: Responding to Threats: III

Responding to Threats: III

by

Last updated: June 9, 2019

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.

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.

A polar bear, feeding, on land

A polar bear, feeding, on land. Polar bears, among the most visibly endangered species, have become emblematic of the phenomenon of Global Warming (often called "Climate Change"). Indirect threats are a common tactic found in the public discourse on the topic. For instance, in February, 2008, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. Afterward, he told reporters "global warming in the long term has the potential to kill everybody." On the other side of the debate about our response to global warming are numerous examples of similar indirect threats. In July, 2003, Sen. Kit Bond, speaking in the U.S. Senate in opposition to raising fuel economy standards, reported that experts and businessmen, "… tell me that these proposals could cost jobs, because the only way for manufacturers to meet these unrealistic political numbers is to make significant cuts to light truck, minivan, and SUV production." In neither case is the threatener promising personal action. Both statements have the outward appearance of warnings. Photo by Dave Olsen. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Public Affairs.

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
than challenging
direct threats
a 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  Go to top Top  Next issue: TINOs: Teams in Name Only  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs 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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

Tornado in a mature stage of development (Photo #3 of a series of classic photographs)Responding to Threats: II
When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
A mixed stand of aspen and pine in the Okanagan region of British Columbia and Washington stateHow Workplace Bullies Use OODA: I
Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time rely on more than mere intimidation to escape prosecution. They proactively shape their environments to make them safe for bullying. The OODA model gives us insights into how they accomplish this.
A captive zebra of the species Equus quagga (plains zebra)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.
The Town Hall of Brighton, England, in 2010Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying
Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
Three gulls excluding a fourthUnrecognized 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 cognitive bias.

See also Workplace Bullying, Conflict Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A spiral notebook, a pencil, and a mobile deviceComing October 28: Notes to Self
Many of us jot important reminders to ourselves on sticky notes, used envelopes, scraps of paper, and whatnot. Often we misplace these notes, or later find them too late to serve their purposes. Here's a low-tech alternative that works better for some. Available here and by RSS on October 28.
Multiple clocks, one for each time zoneAnd on November 4: Mastering Messaging for Pandemics: I
When a pandemic rages, face-to-face meetings are largely curtailed. Clarity in text messaging and email communication becomes more important than usual. Citing dates and times unambiguously requires a more rigorous approach than many are accustomed to. Available here and by RSS on November 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.