When someone intends to inflict intense fear, anxiety, or stress on another at work, one set of available strategies involves condescension, humiliation, and lies. Repeated attacks can wear on a person, but targets have a better chance of withstanding these assaults and maintaining composure if they recognize the pattern and the tactics. In that spirit, here are descriptions of three tactics abusers employ to wear down their targets. As in Part III of this series, I use the name Alpha for the abuser and Theta for the target.
- A condescending, imperious tone, or badgering and humiliation
- Alpha's treatment of Theta might include condescension, an imperious tone, badgering, humiliation, or other forms of disrespect. These tactics are likely intended to generate anger and frustration on Theta's part. Theta might feel compelled to object to these tactics, but if Alpha has designed and executed them carefully, Theta would be unwise to register any kind of grievance or appear to be offended. Such responses by Theta would make Theta appear to others to be "thin-skinned," "argumentative," or "aggressive." Alpha might even claim, plausibly, that Theta's objections were evidence of gratuitous aggression against Alpha by Theta, intended to harm Alpha, who would claim to be innocent of any wrongdoing. This is a tactic I call "reversing the victim."
- Offenses of this kind occurring in email or text messages provide Theta with very little that can help in ending the abuse, because they're usually ambiguous enough to avoid capturing the abuser's tone. And often appreciating the power of these messages requires knowledge of context not present explicitly in the messages. That's why Invoking a company grievance procedure, or applying legal means, are strategies unlikely to succeed if they rely on these messages for evidence of abuse. However, recordings (audio or video) are another matter, because they do tend to accurately convey the abuse. Depending on the jurisdiction, making such recordings can be prohibited by law. And company policy might also forbid it. But if Theta can find a way to make recordings without legal risk and without violating company policy, recordings can be very useful in persuading Alpha to cease or in motivating company officials to take corrective action against Alpha.
- False accusations
- Alpha might Offenses involving condescension
or a disrespectful tone committed
in email or text messages provide
very little that can help in
ending the abuse, because
they're usually ambiguousaccuse Theta of having said things that Theta never said, or having done things that Theta never did. Or Alpha might accuse Theta of withholding information that Theta didn't withhold, or failing to take actions that Theta did in fact take.
- Targets can limit the availability of these tactics by creating evidence that they, the targets, did (or did not) take the actions that their abusers claim they did not (or did). Evidence need not meet high legal standards, though of course that would be best. The standard to meet is that the evidence be such as to deter the abuser from using this tactic. For example, to deter Alpha from claiming that Theta failed to report certain information, Theta can report it to Alpha — or even just mention it in passing — during a meeting before witnesses, or enter it into an appropriate tamper-proof, internal online medium with a substantial subscriber base. To exploit these deterrence strategies, targets would do well to become familiar with all channels and media in which they can report information.
- Distorting the facts
- Alpha might assert to Theta that Theta's performance is substandard or worse, providing "factual" claims to support these assertions. The claims might be complete fabrications, but if Alpha is sophisticated, the claims are unlikely to be total fiction, and more likely to be distorted versions of actual facts. If there are distortions, they're likely subjective distortions or judgments, or claims made about private exchanges that occurred without witnesses. For most third parties, identifying these assertions as distortions might require contextual information that Alpha cleverly omits from the assertions. That is, the assertions are of a kind for which objective refutation on the basis of hard data would be difficult. Alpha's intent is to leave Theta in a state of frustrated rage with little chance of defense against Alpha's outrageously distorted claims.
- If Alpha is willing to make stuff up — to lie — presumably Alpha will choose to lie only in ways that don't expose Alpha to risk of being revealed as a liar. If Alpha uses this tactic, Theta would be wise to collect and track all the lies, because the collection might be useful someday in demonstrating a pattern of lying. Moreover, a complete record of Alpha's lies is likely to reveal inconsistencies and contradictions that Alpha cannot avoid, because keeping track of lies is a notoriously difficult exercise [Note 1]. But beyond that, Theta must recognize that it is no longer enough to be a good citizen and to meet all expectations, because Alpha can lie about Theta's performance, or anything else. Theta would be wise to prepare an exit from the situation, if possible.
If the power gap between the abuser and the target is stable or increasing — that is, if Alpha's position in the organization is much more secure than Theta's — Theta is unlikely to obtain any degree of justice from internal organizational procedures. And approaches based on legal protections tend to be successful only if the abuser has blatantly violated specifically applicable laws. Targets unfamiliar with these situations should seek assistance from a coach or adviser unaffiliated with the employer and familiar with the risks and costs that any approach to a resolution might entail. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Using Indirectness at Work
- Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information
indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore
well-being and comity within the organization.
- Virtual Termination with Real Respect
- When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid
travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people
in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
- Communication Templates: II
- Communication templates are patterns that are so widely used that once identified, nearly everyone recognizes
them. In this Part II we consider some of the more toxic — less innocuous — communication
- Face-Off Negotiations
- In difficult face-to-face negotiations — or any face-to-face negotiations — seating arrangements
do matter. Here's an exploration of one common seating pattern.
- Contextual Causes of Conflict: II
- Too often we assume that the causes of destructive conflict lie in the behavior or personalities of
the people directly participating in the conflict. Here's Part II of an exploration of causes that lie
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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