Crucial Skills®

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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 need 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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26 thoughts on “Verbal Violence: Is There Room for It in the Workplace?”

  1. Robina Jenkins

    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.

    1. Kerry Patterson

      Good for you for holding to your values–in the face of opposition.

  2. Rebecca Yost

    Thank you for your articles. They are so where we need to do these days. In all aspects of our lives from the family on up.

  3. Michelle

    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?

    1. Kerry Patterson

      The best argument is to lead with respect and succeed. There’s nothing quite so convincing as a real-life example.

  4. S Baierl

    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.

  5. Ruth Finkelstein

    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.

    1. Julinda

      Good story, Ruth Finkelstein. I’ve had many supervisors who taught me what NOT to be like.

  6. Julia Carlson

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

    1. Kerry Patterson

      You wonder if watching officials tear into each other year after year eventually will work its way into our view of what’s normal. Let’s hope not.

      1. Lisa McClane

        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.

  7. J Harris

    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.

  8. Julinda

    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!

  9. Julinda

    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!

  10. Luke T

    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.

    1. Kerry Patterson

      Fortunately, lots of companies are asking their employee not to use foul language at work. It’s certainly not helpful, and for many people, creates a hostile work environment.

  11. Brad Simmons

    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. Paul Q

      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.

  12. bean q

    as i read this, it reminded me thoroughly of tosh.0’s comedic interview of a (real-life) lingerie football coach with the exact issue described.
    i’m not sure if i can post a link here, but if it adds to the convo, googling “lingerie football coach” would probably do the trick.—lingerie-football-coach—uncensored


    So what ARE effective movitation techniques when faced with those who underperform or even defy at what seems to be every turn? Your own children?

  14. David Strand

    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.

  15. Barry Marton

    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.

  16. Ann zimmerman

    Great article Kerry! I can so relate to your story. I worked in a white collar environment, and could see the extreme subtle violence all around. A lot of times we think of violence as showing up in an intimidating way waving a weapon around, yet violence, particularly the subtle violence can be just as deadly. . . deadly to the heart and soul of your employee. The lack of awareness around the subtle violence is really interesting, because what is often seen is an organization will claim kindness, respect, and collaboration as their values and even set up Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committees that are have become so hip during this time, yet will show up in violent ways that contradict those values in those oh so subtle ways. With all the recent social unrest, I have challenged myself to examine the ways in which I show up, the language I use, and the body language & tone that is just so ingrained through a lot of years of living. Huge work. Hard work, and requires a constant awareness. I totally get and believe in the lead by example regardless of the power position, but I also struggle with how do you change that culture? My response for the abusive situation I found myself in I have to admit some days were graceful, and other days I found myself meeting violence with violence (the rolling of the eyes while on the phone, etc.). I had to forgive myself for those moments where I was not better, and vowed to continue challenging myself to be aware of my violent or nonviolent reaction. Ultimately in the end though, I finally felt it was just too much to manage and had no choice but to leave. I felt like I was just a doormat, not respected, and had no other option but to take the abuse if I wanted to stay. I struggled with that decision, because I loved the work and had some great relationships outside of the direct management. The question I ask myself is if there was something more I could have done other than leaving. Do you have any thoughts as to how to navigate an organization or department where the culture is one of that subtle violence and/or possible ways to bring that awareness to the light (thinking of those DEI committees and how they can be successful)? Thank you for your insights.

  17. Farida Madraswala

    I deal with someone who subscribes to this philosophy that KITA is needed to get people moving. They validate it with stories of all the successful people we see in this world. I need examples of people running successful companies using your philosophy ( which i subscribe to) to counteract this argument that only KITA works.

  18. Gillian Walters

    May I say that I find US bosses have difficulty between verbal abuse and assertiveness and I have seen it so many times in my 20 plus years of working here, and have suffered in my present company twice so far. The issue is that when it stems from the very top, and it flows down, it is hard to stop. Ethic courses don’t do anything, they don’t believe they are being abuse to staff.

    You don’t need to shout, embarrass people in front of others, assertiveness is to deal with it calmly but firmly.

  19. D W

    I really appreciate that you reference what feels to be the normal style of motivation and discipline in the world of coaching sports in this discussion.
    I would love to see some studies done on effective motivation and communication in sport coaching in today’s world. What worked in the past? What is working today? What are the trends?
    I think the days of yelling, demeaning, and swearing directly at players are dwindling fast. I do believe it, unfortunately, still happens to often.
    But I theorize that the coaches who are just beginning to emerge as victorious and consistently successful, have a commanding respect of their players. And I would dare guess that they do not demean or yell AT them, and if they appear to be yelling, it’s yelling TO them (not AT them) with a passion for success. They start with the goal of correction, not the old way of “breaking them down first, to build them back better.”
    Maybe I’m way off though. I can be the first to admit that my opinions have been wrong many times before.
    I also theorize that the athletes today want respect and to be treated as a person more than ever before. Why? Is that because we’ve raised them that way? Or is it because society around them has set a new standard?
    I do find it note-worthy that we tend to espouse new ideas of communication in business settings, but are slow to do so in football and politics. (maybe other sports too)
    I would be interested to know if Crucial Learning platforms have been able to penetrate into the minds and programs of the sporting world.
    I have experienced both coaches in my life. There is the one coach you would do anything for because the daily actions showed you that he/she respected you as a person and was doing everything they could for you and the team. And the other coach that made you look forward to end of the season.
    Both are good people, both want to win, both want what’s best for the team. They actually had the same goals deep down.
    So what is different?
    I believe it’s like Crucial Learning begins most the answers to questions:
    “Begin with Heart”
    What is your motivation, what is your story, why are you here and why do you care.
    And next, the all-too-important
    – Interpersonal Skills –
    If you have not been taught the skill, you simply do not know it. If you stop and reflect on everything you are, everything you know, you will realize – you learned it somewhere.
    The lack of these skills are magnified in the heat of the moment. And politics, sports, and crucial conversations often require high-stress, tense, abrupt, conversations. These are tough moments to know yourself, know your beliefs, and express yourself properly.

    I am grateful that I have at least been introduced to learning these principles. And my kids are helping me practice them with all the experiences they are bringing into my parenting life as teenagers.

    I for one will be passing this article along to the close coaches in my world.
    I believe that Crucial Learning principles need to reach beyond the office, beyond the white collars and into our homes, our politics and may even have place in the locker rooms of our lives.

    Thank you for your ideas and the time you put into making your influential sphere a better place.

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