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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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- 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.
- Meeting Bullies: Advice for Chairs
- Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public.
When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
- So You Want the Bullying to End: I
- If you're the target of a workplace bully, you probably want the bullying to end. If you've ever been
the target of a workplace bully, you probably remember wanting it to end. But how it ends can be more
important than whether or when it ends.
- 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.
- Seventeen Guidelines About Workplace Bullying
- Bullying is a complex social pattern. Thinking clearly about bullying is difficult in the moment because
our emotions can distract us. Here are some short insights about bullying that are easy to remember
in the moment.
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- Coming November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
- And on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.
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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.
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.