The first two parts in this series examined techniques people use to cause others to "lose it" — to lose control of their emotions — in meetings. This part and the next examine other abusive tactics that are more narrowly focused on wearing down a target by introducing into the target's life a continuous sense of fear, anxiety, or stress. The immediate objective of these tactics might differ from the immediate objective of the tactics discussed earlier. For these tactics, emotional breakdown of the target is the primary goal — it need not be witnessed by anyone. If emotional breakdown occurs when witnesses are present, that's just a bonus from the abuser's perspective, rather than a primary objective.
Intentionally trying to "break" someone makes little sense to most of us. But many abusers do have purposes in mind, ranging from deeply unhealthy to politically cynical. Abusers might feel driven to engage in abuse, compelled by internal forces that most emotionally healthy people can't even grasp — thank goodness. Or abusers might be seeking revenge for some real or imagined offense by the target or by someone the target cares about. Or the abuser might be trying to motivate the target to leave the company or transfer elsewhere within it. Or the abuser might have been ordered to abuse the target by someone else who has the power to derail the abuser's career if the abuser doesn't cooperate. Purposes vary, and conjuring dozens more examples would not be difficult.
To create Intentionally trying to "break"
someone makes little sense to
most of us. But many abusers
do have purposes in mind.in the target a continuous sense of fear, anxiety, or stress, the abuser (whom I'll call Alpha) must persuade the target (whom I'll call Theta) that Alpha can substantially degrade Theta's quality of life at work and maybe even life at home. Persuading Theta of this is relatively easy if Alpha is Theta's supervisor, or if Alpha is even higher in Theta's supervisory chain. Or perhaps Theta believes that Alpha is capable of organizational blackmail, as might be the case if Alpha knows something about Theta's background or situation that Theta would rather Alpha not disclose. Whatever the circumstance, such an imbalance of power is assumed in the set of tactics Alpha can use to create in Theta's life a sense of fear, anxiety, or stress.
Let me begin with the most obvious tactic: threatening termination or disciplinary action. In this scenario, Alpha indicates to Theta that termination procedures — or other procedures that could lead to disciplinary action of some kind — are either underway or about to be underway.
In most organizations, actually invoking such procedures is a laborious, bureaucratic process. For this reason, Alpha might prefer not to do so for real, but might instead choose to persuade Theta that such procedures have been invoked, when in fact they have not. For example, Alpha might require Theta to sign an official looking but totally fake document that states that Theta understands that these procedures have been invoked.
To defend themselves against such subterfuge, targets can educate themselves about formal termination and disciplinary procedures. Then when their abusers try these fraudulent tactics, targets can recognize them and avoid the stress and anxiety that abusers are trying to induce. Avoiding the stress and anxiety helps targets think clearly and avoid "losing it."
Thinking clearly can be a significant advantage in such situations. For example, when presented with such an official-looking document to sign, Theta might say to Alpha, "OK, I'll sign, but I'd like to read it first. And I'd like a representative of Human Resources to be here in case I have any questions. So call Marty please. Oh yeah, and I'd like a copy for myself signed by you if you don't mind."
Such an approach would help screen out the fake-document ploy described above. It would compel Alpha to follow the formal procedure, which would probably be safer for Theta than whatever Alpha had in mind. The ultimate outcome might still be termination or a disciplinary action, but at least Theta would know that the rules would be in force.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Questioning Questions
- In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution.
Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
- An Emergency Toolkit
- You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target
of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond,
but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
- Patterns of Conflict Escalation: I
- Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic
conflict following recognizable patterns.
- Unresponsive Suppliers: II
- When a project depends on external suppliers for some tasks and materials, supplier performance can
affect our ability to meet deadlines. How can communication help us get what we need from unresponsive
- Covert Inter-Team Noncooperation
- Occasionally teams find that they must cooperate with another team despite strong misgivings. Because
noncooperation isn't an option, they find covert ways to avoid cooperating. Here's a little catalog
of techniques of Covert Inter-Team Noncooperation.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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