Some people use presuppositions to coerce others into accepting responsibilities they don't want or can't fulfill. Here's an example: "Jesse, when can you have this done?" It sounds like an innocent question, and often, it is. But suppose Jesse hasn't yet committed to the task because he's overloaded, as he had politely explained yesterday. And suppose further that the question is asked in a meeting, with colleagues and perhaps Jesse's supervisor looking on (or listening in).
Jesse would be cornered. He would have to choose between acquiescence and contradicting the speaker, and thereby seeming uncooperative. Worse, if he contradicts the speaker, however politely, the speaker might respond with something like, "Whoa, pal, you already committed to doing this. Are you reneging now at this late date?" Some operators might do this even if Jesse had never said or done anything resembling accepting responsibility.
This tactic is difficult to deal with because it contains a presupposition. A swatch of speech or text contains a presupposition if it assumes something, usually implicitly. In the example above, the presupposition is that Jesse has agreed to do the work. (See "The Power of Presuppositions," Point Lookout for September 1, 2004, for more.)
Presuppositions aren't inherently evil. A presupposition can be appropriate when all parties to the exchange are aware of the assumption and agree to it. I call this a Type 1 Presupposition (PS1). But when the recipient of the message is unaware of the presupposition or doesn't agree with it, trouble like Jesse's begins. If the presupposition is inadvertent it's of Type 2 (PS2). If it's intentional, it's Type 3 (PS3).
Here's what you can do about Type 3 presuppositions.
- Educate everyone
- Ending the use of PS3s begins with learning what they are. Outside the context of any PS3 incident, explain PS3s to others. The word presupposition is familiar to some, but many don't really know what it means.
- Recognize PS3s as abuse
- PS1s are useful shorthand; PS2s are accidents; PS3s are a We must recognize as abusers any
managers who use presuppositions
to coerce subordinatesform of psychological abuse. We must recognize as abusers any managers who use presuppositions to coerce subordinates.
- As a third party, point out presuppositions when they're used
- Targets of PS2s and PS3s are vulnerable. Responding safely is difficult. But third party bystanders can respond constructively and forcefully by simply identifying the presupposition. Example: "Wait a minute, I didn't realize Jesse had committed to this task. I'm concerned that he might become overloaded."
One step you can take right away: circulate this essay. If your organization harbors operators who use presuppositions as tools of coercion, you'll do a great deal of good by making people aware of the tactic in advance, even if you can't take overt action "in the moment." It's a small step towards eliminating this form of coercion, but it is a step. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- What Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: II
- When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize
your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying
out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
- On Advice and Responsibility
- Being asked for advice can be an affirming experience, but actually giving advice can sometimes entail
risk. How can this happen, and what choices do we have?
- Fooling Ourselves
- Humans have impressive abilities to convince themselves of things that are false. One explanation for
this behavior is the theory of cognitive dissonance.
- Bottlenecks: I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly
find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs?
- Columbo Strategy
- A late 20th-century television detective named Columbo had a unique approach to cracking murder cases.
His method is just as effective at work when the less powerful must deal with the powerful.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
- And on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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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.