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Kerrying On

Verbal Violence: Is There Room for It in the Workplace?

One day, during a particularly boring stretch at church, I leaned back and noticed, for the first time, the laminated beams supporting the chapel’s roof. The beams reminded me of my summer job after my freshman year of college when I worked at a plant that made (any guesses?) laminated beams.

I didn’t really earn that job; I sort of cheated my way in. It began when I stopped by the mill where my dad had worked for the ten years before he and mom moved to Arizona. I didn’t move south with them (I went off to college instead), so I was sleeping on my grandfather’s couch and putting around in his 1943 Dodge. I desperately needed a paying job so I could (1) return to college in the fall and (2) not be a hobo.

“We don’t have any openings,” Leo, the plant manager, brusquely stated.

“Thanks,” I responded. Then, as an afterthought, I added, “Dad says ‘hello.’”

“You aren’t Pat Patterson’s son, are you?” Leo asked.

“I am.”

“Hey!” Leo barked to a lanky fellow who had just walked into the office. “This kid here is Pat Patterson’s son. He’s going to work with us this summer.” And that’s how I landed the job.

When I started work the next day, Leo introduced me to Clyde, a massive, six-foot-six, grey-bearded, perpetually scowling and complaining fellow in his mid-fifties. The guy surely would have carried the nickname “Grumpy,” had the Disney cartoon been fashioned after a story known as Snow White and the Seven Tight Ends. Clyde was making use of his muscled frame by stacking boards onto a pallet. I was assigned to be his helper. To get me started, Clyde wrote down a list of board lengths on a small blackboard. From several stacks of varying-sized boards that he had placed around us with a forklift, Clyde was to find the first board on the list and place it on an empty pallet. I was to find and stack the second board, and so forth.

“Any questions? Clyde asked.

Before I could reply, Clyde fetched a board and we were off and running. At first I was worried because I couldn’t always tell the lengths apart, but I seemed to be doing okay. Every once in a while Clyde would send me to a different stack, until, board-by-board, we eventually completed the job. I smiled widely, thinking I had done well.

“You see where the stack ends?” Clyde asked me as he shook his head in disgust. “The empty space means you skipped a board and now I have to unstack the pallet until I find your #%&*# mistake.”

As unnerving as it was to be cursed at by an oversized Disney character, it only got worse. Clyde grabbed a massive board from the pallet, threw it on the floor, and cursed me some more for screwing up. He then grabbed, threw, and cursed twenty-two more boards until he worked his way back to my mistake. Finally, still using scary threats and age-inappropriate language, he restacked the pallet correctly. I wanted to die.

Seeing the distressed look on my face, Clyde stopped cursing, smiled, and laughed heartily. It had all been a show. He actually wanted me to foul up so he could yell at me and pitch a fit because “All employees needs a good kick in the pants to provide them with proper motivation.” And thus ended my first on-the-job leadership lesson. It was powerful, memorable, and totally wrong.

I didn’t need a kick in the pants. I was sleeping on my grandpa’s couch. I was by nature an uptight overachiever. I was desperate to do well on the job. Desperate. And yet Clyde thought I needed to be motivated—through verbal violence no less. And he’s not alone.

“I yell at my employees because it’s the only thing that works,” say a surprising number of leaders I’ve consulted with over the years. Parents often take a similar path with their kids. “They only respond to threats. So, I mostly threaten them.” Of course, when you interview the employees or the kids, they don’t subscribe to Hunter Thompson’s theory of leadership. That is, they don’t believe that the newest and hottest motivational tools are fear and loathing. They prefer respectful reasoning.

It’s a good bet that many people employ verbal violence as a motivational technique because they see it in action so often. Coaches yell at their players in front of thousands of fans—with little or no visible repercussions. When you ask them why they routinely use verbal violence, they pull out the, “It’s what they needed,” card. Or worse still, “It was good for them.” So when you discuss leadership in company training sessions, many justify their aggressive verbal violence by pointing to successful coaches who win because, “threats and insults are often your best tools.” People actually say that.

It’s true that there are times people do need to be motivated—maybe the work is noxious or boring, or they have different priorities. Maybe they simply don’t want to work. It doesn’t matter. But raising your voice, threatening, and otherwise verbally abusing others is never the correct tool. And for those of you who work in sophisticated, white-collar careers where visible, verbal violence isn’t tolerated—abusing others through subtle looks of disgust, sarcastic hints, and thinly veiled humor is equally abhorrent. Violence, in all of its sordid forms, is never acceptable.

I realize that I’m preaching to the choir. You wouldn’t dream of verbally assaulting another human being. But then again, you see so many others being verbally aggressive—from TV leaders, to coworkers, to people like Clyde who are purposely, even studiously, abrasive—it makes you wonder. So let’s remind each other why both blatant and subtle forms of verbal violence are never the right choice.

First, you can emotionally damage people by verbally abusing them. To quote Eric Idle: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours.” Second, employing verbal violence turns you into a person you don’t want to be. Remember that soul-sucking boss you loathed? Roll your eyes in disgust one more time and you’ve become that guy. Third, when nothing you do to motivate others actually works, you can always fall back on the company’s disciplinary procedures. You start with a verbal warning. Then comes a written warning, etc. Never does the company’s discipline process state: “First yell, then curse, and then throw a big board.”

So, if you’re toying with the idea of tearing into someone who “needs it”—don’t. Even if the other person was hired through egregiously nepotistic methods, he deserves your respect. Even if he left out, let’s say, an essential board and ruined the job, yelling will only make matters worse. Yelling a lot makes matters a lot worse. It all comes down to a simple ditty: Verbal abuse—never put it to use.

Words to live by.

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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

22 thoughts on “Verbal Violence: Is There Room for It in the Workplace?”

  1. Thank you for confirming what I believe led to my success. As a manager of the work, I treated people the way I wanted to be treated with kindness and respect. I led by example and sometimes I didn’t even feel all that good but I didn’t want to undermine my credibility. I was taught and whole-heartedly believe there is no excuse for bad behavior or rudeness; yelling in someone’s face is rude and cruel and I am not an animal or hard of hearing. However I had been contributing it to mental illness. Also I wonder when people run into each other outside of work would they retaliate to get even.

  2. This is a very timely article. I had thought this kind of behavior was a thing of the past until I changed jobs and now have some leaders who think using this “coaching” model is appropriate and effective. How can I help them to see that it’s not? Are there any articles or posts that would be directed to “Dear Mean Person” to help them understand that screaming, belittling, put-downs, etc. is not effective? I have already tried to explain this, and I’m told “this is the only thing that works” – how can I convince them it’s not?

  3. Having been on the receiving end of verbal abuse on the job and in life, I can attest to the fact that it is not motivating. It actually instills fear and loathing toward the abuser. It’s never a good feeling to walk around on eggs shells waiting for the other shoe to drop and be berated for doing something else “wrong”. Generally, people want to accomplish a task and do it well. A constructive, helpful, positive message along with a mutually respectful flow of conversation will go a lot further to instill growth and good work between you & your employee/partner.

  4. I am old enough and was fortunate enough to have had a couple of undergraduate classes with Fred Hertzberg, who I believe is credited as the Father of Industrial Psychology. He had coined the phrase KITA for kick in the a_ _ motivation and introduced how incentivizing was a better motivation. What I always found lacking was instilling the intrinsic feeling of satifaction from “just doing the best you can.” Over my 35+ years in management, I have supervised employees who were survivors of PTSD from bad experiences on the job and watched them develop their own internal sense of doing the right thing for the right reason, taking personal accoutability for their work, and becoming invested in process improvement by not being exposed to tyrannical supervision. Personally, I had a horrendous supervisor right out of college. His style encouraged an openly aggressive hostile work environment where sabotage, back stabbing and disrepect flourished. Years later I ran into this individual. He said that he had heard how successful I was and wanted to know if he could take credit for my success. I said of course, because he had been my touchstone for developing my own sytle. I simply did the opposite of whatever I thought he would have done.

  5. I listen to how our government officials talk to each other and it makes me shudder. They could learn from this article!

      1. I am afraid it already has in far too many circumstances. It seems to me that people are becoming less and less respectful of others everywhere. Anger, road rage, violence in other forms seems to be mushrooming in human society, largely, I believe, because we have become inured to it.

  6. You stated that Clyde used “age-inappropriate” language. At what age would that be appropriate? Is there a range? I bet your answer is, “At no age is such language appropriate.” As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29, ESV) I suspect he had no age limitations in mind.

  7. Another good one, Kerry Patterson! I’ve had so many supervisors who thought negative motivation was the way to go. A “thank you,” a “great job,” or a sincere interest in my work would go a long way toward motivating me!

  8. I also like that you mentioned parents. Too many parents think yelling, shaming, and punishment are the best or only ways to teach kids! They are not!

  9. Thank you for the article. I never used curse words, not even s* or c* words. I just don’t believe it benefits anything. On contrary, if I were to use it, it would mean I don’t have other words to convey the importance of my message. Your context is about giving motivation/discipline, but how about where people use these words casually but often most of the time to replace other words? If found a lot of these people around me.

  10. I wonder when the US military will figure this out. Boot camp still includes massive amounts of yelling, cursing, degradation, and a general lack of respect by drill sergeants towards recruits. I think a study of this could lend same amazing insights.

    1. You cannot compare military basic training with any kind of corporate or business situation. Building a soldier ready to kill or die for his or her country is no easy task and is not the same thing as training and empowering an accountant, customer service rep or salesperson.

  11. Great article. It reminded me of when I was nineteen working my first construction job. In a moment of poor aim and judgment, I threw a PVC pipe from the roof that bounced off the ground and right through a large double pained window we had just installed. My boss (Jim) looked at me, then at the broken window, and went back to work. I waited, but the verbal lashing never came. I cleaned up my mess and on our way home, I asked him why he didn’t yell at me. I will never forget his response. “If I yelled every time a piece of glass got broke, I’d be yelling all the time.” That was over 30 years ago and I have never forgotten how my respect and loyalty tripled for that man that day.

  12. I had a coworker who was a rapid climber in the organization and is thankfully no longer in the organization who after insulting a person in a meeting and their entire Functional Department (she was not the Department head) he said…”You have to be a [jerk] to get anything done around here”. First, I’ve seen lots of non-jerks get lots of things done. Second, she and her department did not deserve that treatment, especially in public. It’s a shame he climbed so quickly in the organization but fitting that he is no longer here (of his choice). I agree with your post.

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