In Part II of this discussion of threats, we examined direct threats. Direct threats are uncloaked, delivered personally, without apology, and with emotional force. We saw how they work and examined some possible responses. In this Part III, we'll turn to indirect threats.
The indirect threat is a seemingly clever tactic for making a threat without appearing to be a threatener. One form is: "If you do (or don't do) X, then they will do Y." For example, "If you don't meet your commitments, you'll have to answer to Joanne."
Direct threats and indirect threats do share something — they both derive power from fear. Direct threats evoke fear of the threatener; indirect threats evoke fear of a third party or a force of nature.
Compared to direct threats, indirect threats seem to the threatener to cause less damage to the relationship between the threatener and the threatened. By making a third party the source of pain and fear, the threatener hopes to gain plausible deniability for the threat. The threatener thereby adopts a pose characterized by, "It was a warning, not a threat."
But sadly for the threatener, indirectness doesn't really provide the insulation sought, especially if the threatener is a leader or a manager of the threatened. Because indirect threats attribute superior power to a third party, those threatened tend to look upon indirect threats as an indication of weakness or cowardice on the part of the threatener. They might ask, "Why doesn't he protect us from them?"
Challenging indirect threats is even less effective than challenging direct threats, because a third party is the supposed source of fear and pain. When challenged, the threatener can reply, in our example, "Hey, don't talk to me, talk to Joanne." Or, "Look, it's out of my hands, just get it done." To challenge the threat, you must confront the third party, which can be especially risky if the threat is fictitious.
Working as Challenging indirect threats
is even less effective
direct threatsa subordinate of someone who uses indirect threats as a management or negotiation technique is risky. First, credibility is an issue. Is the threat real? Can it be confirmed? Is it really true that nothing can be done about the threatened consequences? Working for someone who manufactures or misrepresents facts isn't a good place to be.
Second, the indirectness suggests a self-image of weakness, which often accompanies political weakness. The threatener's organization is thus a ripe target for those peers of the threatener bent on advancing their own status by acquiring or wrecking their peers' organizations. Consider moving on, internally or externally, but soon. If you're likely to have a new boss in the near future, it might be better to choose one yourself than to have one chosen for you. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- How Targets of Bullies Can Use OODA: I
- Most targets of bullies just want the bullying to stop, but most bullies don't stop unless they fear
for their own welfare if they continue the bullying. To end the bullying, targets must turn the tables.
- Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I
- Bullying is unlike other forms of toxic conflict. That's why the tools we use to address toxic conflict
simply do not work for bullying. In this Part I, we contrast bullying and ordinary toxic conflict.
- Dealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
- When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining
to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management
wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
- 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.
- Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying
- Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why
do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
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