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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: When Is Coercion an Acceptable Tactic?

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Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Kerrying On

I’ve just returned from a week’s vacation with my wife, our parents, our children, and our grandchildren—a rambling group totaling sixteen people. Given that we varied in age from seven weeks to eighty-seven years, deciding what entertaining thing to do next was always a challenge. Frequently, as we engaged in a spirited discussion to make such decisions, someone would try to force his or her way onto the group.

It’s interesting to watch as people do their best to balance their personal wishes with the desires of others—and to do so in a way that is just and fair. In my case, when one or more family members stepped over the “just and fair” line and tried to coerce others, they wouldn’t make demands or threats or anything so blatantly authoritarian. Instead, they would express their views with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. The unspoken message would often be, “I care a lot about this and am willing to go to the mat if necessary, so don’t mess with me. And if you really want to be honest, I think it’s my turn to win anyway.”

Now, when someone shifted into this gentle authoritarian mode we were typically making fairly trivial choices such as, “Should we go to the beach and roast marshmallows or should we retire to the dining room and play card games?” Consequently, when someone started pushing for a rather inconsequential choice others would quickly give in and save their energy for more important debates such as, “Should we go to the farm and collect eggs before or after lunch?”

Interestingly enough, all of this polite wrangling took place within a context of also constantly forcing one’s will upon others. After all, amongst us were six children under the age of six, all hell-bent on having fun. This often included hanging off the edge of a cliff or walking precariously close to the edge of the deck of a rolling boat—where it would fall upon the nearest adult to pull the child (sometimes kicking and screaming) out of harm’s way.

Of course, no one would ever argue that forcing a child to safety is a mistake. Nobody contends that kids should learn basic survival lessons by causing themselves great harm. Nevertheless, it does raise the question: “When exactly is it okay to coerce others?” It can be appropriate with endangered kids, but how about with adults? When, if ever, is it proper to force your way on others?

I find this question interesting in light of the fact that two weeks ago I gave a speech at a military academy. For lunch my host took me to the mess hall where cadets were standing at attention behind their chairs with their food cooling on the table in front of them.

Responding to my own hunger, I wandered past the seemingly catatonic cadets toward the food line in the next room where I casually loaded my tray. When I asked where I was supposed to sit, my host took me in through the forest of trainees standing at attention and told me take the seat at the head of the center table. When I did, everyone sat down at once. The entire group had been waiting for me. Yikes!

I turn to this setting because it can be useful to explore such all-encompassing institutions when trying to understand the boundaries of influence and control. Just how far can and do we go when coercing others? And then when we do push humans to the edge, what works and what doesn’t? “Total institutions” such as prisons and mental asylums sit at the far end of the influence/control continuum. Back off a notch an you’re staring at military academies and boot camps.

To answer the question of when it’s permissible to employ such heavy-handed character development—to aggressively force one’s will upon another—let’s look at academies. How far can and should you go when “shaping” subjects who have volunteered for forceful instruction? Does the fact that subjects have volunteered make just about any method okay? More importantly, when does coercion actually work? After all, if brow-beating people into painful and embarrassing activities doesn’t really work, then you don’t have to ask the ethics questions in the first place.

I know the answer to the effectiveness question. Having graduated from Officer Candidate School (OCS) myself I can personally attest to the fact that forcing me into all sorts of personal indignities did nothing to mold me into an officer and a gentleman. For instance, having me and my fellow trainees jog with our rifles over our head in the unrelenting heat and humidity of late-summer Virginia until someone from my platoon actually dropped from heat stroke didn’t imbue us with pride and confidence. Teaching us military protocol by having us unwittingly break the rules and then screaming at us like we were brain addled criminals didn’t endear us to the hierarchy. And yes, despite the leaders’ claims to the contrary, threatening to flunk us out of OCS and into the jungles of South East Asia didn’t shape my character either. I had arrived at the training center with my character pretty much intact. What all of this stress and abuse did do was force me to question my choice to come in the first place.

These reactions aren’t merely my personal musings. Five years after finishing my own indoctrination, and while researching socialization at Stanford University, I studied the impact of boot camp on military recruits. I measured subjects the day they arrived, and then three, six, and finally twelve weeks later when they graduated. I explored over twenty variables ranging from pride in the military to confidence to self-esteem. No variables improved. One dropped dramatically: Respect for authority.

The more the recruits experienced abuse, insults, and deprivations, the more they couldn’t believe that their leaders could be so thoughtless and stupid. Although it was true that they were once excited to join the team, they now resented the entire hierarchy and everything about it. If John VanMannen’s work on pre-socialization is correct, recruits hold to these early established negative beliefs for the rest of their careers.

Here’s another study that puts coercion and deprivation into perspective. Wondering if the maltreatment typically inflicted upon officer candidates actually accomplished anything, the OCS class following mine conducted an interesting experiment. One of the platoon officers gathered his wards together and told them that he wasn’t going to order them around, abuse them, threaten them, frighten them, or cause them mental anguish in any way. Instead, he asked them to set their own goals and then left them to their own devices.

This experimental group defeated the brow-beat platoons in every athletic, military, and academic competition. More interesting still, members of the experimental platoon described the overall experience as challenging and even fun and rewarding.

So why do boot camps and academies continue with the abusive control? The argument goes like this: “How can you expect to motivate soldiers to attack the enemy at great personal risk unless they’re blindly following commands?” The obvious answer is: “You have to take complete control.” That’s people are asked to do silly, insulting, and painful things during training—so later they’ll follow orders (no matter how ridiculous they may sound) without question.

This particular logic has never been proven true. Do you think soldiers fought the Battle of the Bulge at great personal peril because they feared their leaders? Were they following their sergeants and captains blindly and without thought to what they were being asked to do? Of course not.

What does any of this have to do with you and your job or my family vacation? I share examples from near total institutions—examples of what many people would label as abusive control or even government-sanctioned bullying—as a way of highlighting that even under dire circumstances, forcing one’s will on others is not only questionable, but by most accounts highly ineffective. So why do so many of us use similar tactics at home and at work?

Which brings me to my real point. Despite the fact that most of us get upset every time we watch movie accounts of mean-spirited coercion (such as Lou Gossett Jr. stepping on Richard Gere’s back as he does pushups in the mud in An Officer and a Gentleman, or Viggo Mortensen beating up Demi Moore in GI Jane), we ourselves try to coerce others all the time. Naturally, our methods are not so brutal. We don’t physically abuse or haze people. We don’t employ bullying tactics anywhere near as blatant as we see in military academies. But we do try to coerce others without giving our tactics a second thought.

For example, watch a meeting. Often in the middle of a team discussion a glance from a person in authority announces that he or she is going to now take charge and gently force the group into compliance. The boss’s opinion isn’t carrying the day so he or she moves from egalitarian involvement to what others might experience as authoritarian control. This is not to suggest that leaders can’t make choices, but that when they move to their own decisions too quickly, without legitimately hearing from their experts and working through differences, they’re missing valuable input from their team. And if they impose their will abruptly, abusively, or out of anger, they run the risk of alienating the entire team.

From my point of view, blatant coercion isn’t one bit more inappropriate than a harsh comment or nasty stare from a person who holds the keys to your next paycheck.

Leaders aren’t the only people who employ abusive methods of control. In the absence of authority, we employ a whole host of subtle methods for imposing our will on others. For instance, we often try to take control of a discussion through our pacing—we speed up our delivery and crank up our volume. Or we cut others off in an attempt to restrict the content. Sometimes we overstate the positive elements of our arguments while highlighting the negative elements of our colleagues’ viewpoints. We misstate facts and employ every logical trick imaginable—from appealing to authority to tossing out a red herring.

If we become desperate, we might even attack others’ credibility by questioning their expertise. We may hint that they’re unworthy to offer up an opinion. If we’re really good at it, we use caustic humor—pretending to be playful when in truth we’re not playing one bit. Of course, if we’re particularly gifted, we employ sarcasm as a cutting tool. All of these methods are used not to help people share their views until everyone is heard, but to find a way to be heard ourselves—first heard and then followed.

And now for the limit case. And guess what—the big kahuna of unholy force doesn’t come from drill instructors. It’s more likely to come from family, friends, and neighbors. Unhappy with how the discussion is going, we often threaten to withdraw our love or friendship. Rather than sticking with the merits of the discussion, we hint that if we don’t get our way, the other person will no longer stay in our good graces. We then tactics ranging from the cold shoulder to social bullying. Children will declare, “I won’t be your best friend anymore.” Adults don’t say it, but they do it all the time.

How is it that people who can be so vehemently against coercion and control (when critiquing military institutions or authoritarian leaders) and yet use similarly pernicious tactics with their own work teams or families? Strangely enough, it all comes down to our beliefs. We believe that our idea is right and that if it isn’t implemented we’ll all be in trouble. We start by explaining our views, but when our points appear to fall on deaf ears we quickly move to polite and restrained coercion. It’s an acceptable method because, one, it’s subtle and nobody will notice, and two, in the end we’ll make the right choice and everyone will benefit. After all, we’re right and others are wrong. It’s similar to saving a child who is getting too close to a cliff.

Or so we think.

The solution to our propensity to employ dressed-up goon tactics lies in a change of heart. We have to willingly entertain the idea that others have legitimate points of view. Our responsibility is to be true to our ideas and speak in a way that lets our views be heard. That we know. We need to work equally hard making it safe for others to do the same. That we often forget. When we see our ideas and our preferences as starting points rather than the ultimate conclusion that everyone needs to come to we open ourselves up to the notion that others have views that we must carefully consider. We’re genuinely curious about others’ views and want to learn from them. Instead of thinking up our next argument as others talk, we’ll actually do our best to understand why others hold their beliefs. We listen with the purpose of trying to understand—and then armed with more complete and accurate information, we’ll be more able to make the best choice.

Most important of all, when we see our ideas as starting points that need to be heard and then critiqued and combined with others’ views, we don’t feel the need to coerce people any more than we feel the need to give up on our own views.

And all of this magnificent transformation hangs on one belief. We must cling to the credo that others are reasonable, rational, decent folks who need to be heard, not coerced—no matter how gentle the coercive methods. And within this simple belief lies the future of every group of people—be it your company, my family, or the Green Berets.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

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