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:
- Indicators of Lock-In: II
- When a group of decision makers "locks in" on a choice, they can persist in that course even
when others have concluded that the choice is folly. Here's Part II of a set of indicators of lock-in.
- OODA at Work
- OODA is a model of decision making that's especially useful in rapidly evolving environments, such as
combat, marketing, politics, and emergency management. Here's a brief overview.
- See No Bully, Hear No Bully
- Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection
of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
- Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality
- In virtual teams, toxic conflict sometimes seems to erupt spontaneously. People who function effectively
in co-located teams can find themselves repeatedly embroiled in conflicts that seem to lack specific
causes. What triggers toxic conflict in virtual teams?
- Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what
and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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