Believe It or Else
by Rick Brenner
When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
Despite the group's gathering consensus to the contrary, Eric was determined to have his work included in the Marigold release. In desperation, Eric felt he had no recourse. "OK, that's fine," he said. "I'll just take my case directly to the customer and we'll see what happens then."
Loren steamed, but outwardly kept her cool. Calmly, she said, "And that just might be a career-threatening move. I strongly advise you to reconsider."
If the team yields to Eric's threat, it won't be deciding the issue on its merits, which could lead to a serious error. And if Loren's coercion succeeds, she'll gain only Eric's intimidated compliance — a weak foundation on which to build a team.
Here are three popular ways to use fear to persuade others to accept our points of view.
- The offer you can't refuse
- Named for a ploy described in The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. We accept the assertion because of the high cost of rejecting it. Sometimes called a scare tactic, or argumentum ad baculum, it can vary in intensity. Eric is using a relatively low-intensity form, while Loren's is somewhat more intense. Threats of physical violence are the extreme form.
- Appeal to adverse consequences
Using fear as
a tool of debate
not heartfelt support
- When failure of the assertion implies a consequence we'd rather not accept, we sometimes "conclude" that the assertion must be true. Example: "The problem must be in their design, because if it isn't in theirs, it's in ours."
- Begging terrifying questions
- Using terror in combination with begging the question, we accept the assertion because of a scary secondary assertion that we never actually test, because fear takes over. Example: "If we use that approach, the project will be at least three months late." We might ask, 'Why will it be late? Why three months late and not two months late?' But we rarely ask — we're too terrified.
When people use fear either in debate or to forge "buy-in," your organization pays a price — in flawed decisions, and in compliance instead of heartfelt support. What can you do about fear tactics?
- Don't use these techniques yourself. Replace them with a new pattern of honest debate and legitimate, respectful persuasion on the merits.
- Educate people about scare tactics, the appeal from adverse consequences, and begging terrifying questions. Discuss the adverse consequences of using these tactics.
- Frame the problem
- Using these methods is either an ethical issue or a performance issue. Using them with the intention to deceive is unethical. Using them unknowingly is a performance issue.
Allowing someone else to use fear in debate or persuasion without taking action of some kind, might be both an ethical issue and a performance issue. And it might not — your job status does limit your responsibility to act when you notice someone using the technique. Whatever your status in the organization, though, beware of the adverse consequences of not thinking clearly. Top Next Issue
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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See also Emotions at Work, Effective Communication at Work, Critical Thinking and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.
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