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 BulliesAre you being targeted by a workplace bully? 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 USD 9.99. Order Now!

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