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Fighting direct verbal abuse

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To most people, dealing with an abusive person falls into these categories. Either you fight back or you get out. But it's important to remember that there is often another option: engaging the abuser. I've listed some strategies below to start the dialogue. For more, check out "You Can't Talk to Me That Way," by Arthur Bell (Career, 2005).

Most of us don't have to face the level of abuse that a ticket agent does at the airport. By using these strategies you may be able to fly around the abusive behavior where you work.

Note 1: Paranoid incompetent micromanagers (PIMM), who successfully combine tight control of minute details/procedures used in performing assignments with compete incompetence are often called "control freaks" (CF). This category of micromanagers represents really nasty beasts of IT jungles who tend to completely paralyze their victims.  They are dangerous corporate psychopaths completely different from PHB on Dilbert cartoons.

In this set of pages that include

we will mainly address this menace. 

Note 2: Good advice about the topic is difficult to come by and depends on your concrete situation: take any recommendations with a grain of salt.

Note 3: Most people dramatically overestimate their communication abilities. As a raw estimate consider them approximately equal to your abilities to play chess.

Note 4: Communication with corporate psychopath cannot be spontaneous.  It should be very formal and you should never avoid the possibility to ask the question or statement to be repeated to gain some time.

Note 5: PIMM often use term "improper communication" or "bad teamwork" for pigeonholing. Be prepared to those false accusation and calmly point out on the attempt to pigeonholing:

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Pigeonholing is a term used to describe processes that attempt to classify disparate entities into a small number of categories (usually, mutually exclusive ones).

The expression usually carries connotations of criticism, implying that the classification scheme referred to does not adequately reflect the entities being sorted, or that it is based on stereotypes.

Common failings of pigeonholing schemes include:

  • Categories are poorly defined (often because they are subjective).
  • Entities may be suited to more than one category. Example: rhubarb is both 'poisonous' and 'edible'.
  • Entities may not fit into any available category. Example: asking somebody from Washington, DC which state they live in.
  • Entities may change over time, so they no longer fit the category in which they have been placed. Example: certain species of fish may change from male to female during their life.
  • Attempting to discretize properties that would be better viewed as a continuum. Example: attempting to sort people into 'introverted' and 'extroverted'.
  • ....



The first rule of communicating with micromanager is to feed the beast regularly but never provide any information that is not strictly connected to your projects/assignments. Any information that you communicate can later be used against you. Remember that acute micromanagers are a special type of corporate psychopath and that the driving source of such micromanagers is their own insecurity as well as anxiety about failure. Keep him in the loop feeding with washout information, and then do so on a periodic basis that you can negotiate. As for the length of the period you mileage can vary. I saw pathological tenacious PIMM who, paradoxically, was comfortable with just monthly reports. You need to test PIMM tolerance and if monthly reports are enough consider yourself somewhat lucky, if we can talk about luck in such a desperate situation. With some inventiveness you can safely avoid him/her for the rest of the period.

Think about those periodic reports as feeding money into a parking meter. If you stop putting money in, your meter will run out and you can get a ticket.

You can feed micromanager with spam instead of useful information as long as the period is observed. Micromanagement is all about the procedure not about the substance and that observation alone gives you considerable leverage even on the worst of control freaks. In other words cheating is a noble art for anybody who reports to a micromanager. Usually control freaks do not have time to read all the mail and even if they do they easily swallow regular corporate BS due to self-induced overload. You need to understand the level of their competence and if it is dismal use this weakness. You can usually slightly fudge facts in your favor with little risk: they have no time to check them as they are preoccupied with some meaningless activity like creating yet another gigantic useless Excel spreadsheet that documents absurd procedure for doing trivial things.

The second rule is to sugarcoat everything. PIMM have deeply seated insecurity and their triggers go off at slight hint of criticism. That does not mean that you should avoid confrontations. Just present it as if this is a child. You can find a lot of material how teachers should behave with children and most of them are relevant to communication with PIMM.

Remember that you essentially are dealing with a sick person. You can practice feeding him/her an irrelevant information that makes him comfortable with the hope that it will let you avoid stupid outbursts of anger. But such approach failed to avoid emotional outburst confront such behavior calmly and firmly: "Understand but do not accept negative behavior."

Be assertive and confident but never trust paranoid micromanager and never try to build trust beyond some superficial ("I respect you") level. PIMMs are special type of corporate psychopaths and a psychopath is always a psychopath. Moreover they are usually very skillful manipulators and will try to lure you into frank discussions. Never bite this trap. Never volunteer any information that can be used against you. This is a war and "a la guerre, comme a la guerre" as French defined such relationships: war does not determine who is right - only who is left.

Never try to reform a PIMM. Leave this task to other people or to qualified medical personnel. To quote Susan K. O'Brien (see Tips for coping with a micromanager) ":

Micromanagement is a personality aberration of insecure individuals. Confronting them is likely to make things worse."

Never try to reform a PIMM. Psychopath cannot be reformed. Leave this task to other people or to qualified medical personnel.

Practice verbal aikido by deflecting direct questions and using indirect communication instead of direct whenever possible. Like the martial art of aikido, you don't brace yourself for attack, but try to use your attacker's momentum to thwart the advance. Rather than go into defensive mode, pretend to be proactive and cooperative and try to redirect the oncoming anger into complex question that always surround supposedly "black and white" situation.

When someone tries to put you on the defensive, thanks them but ask for more information using Socratic questions, for example:

Use Socratic questions; be indirect.

For more detail please check two additional pages devoted to the topic:

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Old News ;-)

[Feb 04, 2013] "When my boss went on one of his verbal abuse attacks I activated the recorder"

Note: Recording conversation without consent can be a crime in some states... In states where it is allowed it can provide you some psychological support during difficult interaction even if you wipe it out immediately after conversation.

"When my boss went on one of his verbal abuse attacks I activated the recorder on my cell phone and recorded 30 seconds of him just verbally abusing me. After he was done, I said this is how you sound and played it back. I then asked him how human resources would feel about this and the verbal attacks stopped."

[Feb 04, 2013] The Insecure Authoritarian

The Insecure Authoritarian craves having power over other people, even to the point that he will take a perfectly good situation and ruin it just to cause another person anger and frustration.

Example: You are an office clerical staff and he is your supervisor. Your daughter's school has called to inform you that your daughter is sick and needs to be taken home. You inform your supervisor that, since you have only two hours left on your shift, you would like to take your daughter home and stay there with her for the remainder of your shift. He agrees to that. Then you also request that the two hours be counted toward extra work you did the previous week in which you stayed late. He says no. You state politely that it is company policy to allow flexing your time. Why would it be a problem? He again says no, and orders you to fill out a time off slip.

At this point, the abuser is counting on you getting angry. That's the whole point. He's trying to boost his feeling of power by stripping you of yours. If you get angry, he succeeds. Especially if you really blow your top and a third, impartial person walks in on the scene. Then he can turn to the third person and give an expression of confusion at your behavior, further stripping you of your dignity.

How should you handle this? Of course, don't give him what he wants. But the question is, what do you do?

Or not do. The best response to the Insecure Authoritarian is something called Office Aikido. The art of Aikido is based on non-resistance and using your opponent's power work against himself.

Now understand something: of all the martial arts, Aikido takes the longest to master. And that means when you apply Office Aikido against an Insecure Authoritarian, you will need to learn patience. It takes time to bring him down-or more correctly, watch him bring himself down.

Here's how it would work in the above scenario: You agree with him. In fact, you even make a short and simple comment that his way is a better idea than yours.

Why give him what he wants? It's humiliating!

Because by agreeing with him, you really gave him exactly what he didn't want! The Insecure Authoritarian very much wants you to disagree with him. That is where he gets his power, by making you do something you don't want to do.

So when you go along with him, you're robbing him of his opportunity to rob you of your self-respect.

Look at it this way: the Insecure Authoritarian pushes authority on others in ways and at times when it is unreasonable. He pushes. In order for his tactic to work, you need to resist him. Think of it as if he has put his hands against your shoulders and is trying to force his weight against you. You're inclination is to push back.

He pushes; you resist. He has a battle. And he will always set the battle conditions in his favor, so he's sure to have more power than you. (He won't pull these tricks on his own supervisor!)

But when one person is pushing against another person, he can only keep pushing if the other is pushing back. So by agreeing with him, instead of pushing back, you have simply (and cleverly) stepped out of the way.

If he keeps pushing, he will fall flat on his face.

As in Aikido, you don't step completely out of the way. You still remain in contact. That way, if you have the opportunity to guide his power push, you can.

Here's an example of how that might work: Some time later, the district manager, his supervisor, is at the office for a meeting; you are taking the minutes. The subject of employee time off comes up. The district manager asks you to provide statistics on how many hours employees have used as paid time off, and how many as flex time. You reply that you can give him the statistics for paid time off, but not flex time, because the supervisor doesn't allow it. Since it is a company policy to allow flex time, the district manager turns to your supervisor and requests an explanation.


…is how your supervisor might respond.

Warning! Don't act smug when you give the district manager this information! Revenge never solves verbal abuse. Just give the facts in an honest, straightforward manner.

In the end, Insecure Authoritarians are destined to self-destruct. The hard part is letting them, as well as resisting the urge for revenge.

So let him fall flat on his face! Office Aikido really works. The less resistance you give to an insecure Authoritarian, the better.



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