“I won’t oppose you now, but if anything goes wrong, I’ll go toe-to-toe with you.”
My colleague was already standing practically toe-to-toe with me — and besides being much taller and stronger than I, he was leaning forward and speaking in a threatening tone. He disagreed strongly with a decision I was making, but had neither the authority nor the group support to counter it.
If he wasn’t actually going to take a swing at me (and of course he wasn’t), what was the point of his towering over me? Was he trying to frighten me out of my position? To make clear his intention to pile on if, indeed, my solution didn’t work? He was too late anyway: The decision had been made.
What’s Behind That Threat?
People usually behave threateningly as a way to constrain or change others’ behavior. At one client company, a leader used implied threats against colleagues in other departments to try to prevent them from taking actions she didn’t support. She wanted them to second-guess themselves, to fear consequences, or to believe the cost of crossing her was just too high. She actually closed one meeting I observed by saying, “I doubt you’ll be able to see this through. And when the numbers come in, everyone will see that it was your choice.”
Threatening behavior is often a marker for bullying or manipulation, not just a clear statement of a position that’s counter to yours. If a colleague or a client has a pattern of threatening behavior, what practical options do you have to manage the situation?
Take Steps to Counter a Threatening Colleague
Start by checking your decision-making process. If you feel confident that you’re taking the right course, be public about your data, your logic, and your plans for risk mitigation so that everyone understands there’s a real plan, what the next steps are, what part they are each to play, and what will happen to counter any negative outcomes. And if you’re not sure you’re right, consider whether you need more data, scenario-building, or support from your colleagues.
Challenge the action to call out the bully. Say something to expose the fact that this is not a mere difference of opinion, but an inappropriate behavior. Ask directly, “Are you trying to intimidate me?” with a tone of disbelief. You could continue with: “If the numbers don’t pan out, it will be clear we have a problem, right? And everyone knows that it’s my decision. So are you suggesting that instead of trying to help us fix the problem, your plan is to make me look bad?”
Be willing to join forces. If you think your opponent is trying to get you to join them in their fear rather than trying to hurt you, you can be more conciliatory and collaborative. “I understand you’re concerned about the possible bad outcomes. I don’t want them either. I’d be happy to hear more about your concerns and review with you why I think my approach is the best alternative — and then would you please tell me if you think there’s a way we could strengthen our hand further?”
Show how they’ll be held harmless. Research the situation that your opponent dreads, and then work through the details so you can address their worries. “I know you’d prefer Option A because of your concern that Option B will disrupt your team’s work. Why don’t we set up some checkpoints to review status along the way? If you’re seeing any negatives, here’s what we could do…” Just be sure to understand your colleague’s needs well enough to make a compelling case.
Separate Threats from Projected Fears
In the first scenario, I committed to working closely with my threatening colleague even though I found the situation unpleasant. When he saw that I took his concerns seriously and that I kept my word to stay in close touch, he calmed down and actually helped craft an even more robust solution.
But the executive in the second scenario needed to be shown that she could not run her usual racket unopposed, that her colleague was not afraid of her or of failure, and therefore, her ploy of potential shaming was ineffective. Getting that dynamic out on the table reduced the power of the threat.
If you’re being appropriately collaborative and thoughtful, and have fully assessed the situation, you should be able to shake off excessive, inappropriate control. Differentiating between an opponent’s actual fears and attempts to overpower the situation should help you provide mitigation and reassurance for worries and stand your ground against intentional threats.
The bottom line is to know what needs to happen, and not to be intimidated. Anyone who tries to make a colleague feel afraid to do their job will ultimately make the problem worse by creating a negative, constrained work environment in which only the bully gets to call the shots.
Onward and upward,