“…out in unfettered space the shallow tongue shackled to mindless mind clutters infinity.” [MacLeod, 1984]

Compliments of Fellowship of the Rich via Flickr

When it occurs seamlessly communication is a social lubricant, a means to inform, enlighten, persuade, uplift, and embrace. As an elixir for individual esteem, verbal confluence is a surefire way to foster community. Evans (1996) in The Verbally Abusive Relationship explains the concept of reciprocal dialogue: “Mutuality is a way of being with another person … by means of clear communication and empathetic understanding.” On the flip side, conversations can be a form of stealth weaponry, and a very real way by which employees are emotionally scarred. Bureaucratic, or ego dominated discourse is an exercise in verbal beatings that beget sycophantic pleasers. Bedian (2002) explains learned superiority in bureaucrats, a process that creates individuals who are rigid, suspicious, easily slighted, distrustful of others, insensitive, undiplomatic, and inconsiderate. Because they are one-sided, sessions with these bosses are typically painful and unpleasant. They communicate ineffectively, dishonoring those around them.

  • Criticism
  • judgment
  • blame
  • unilateral directives
  • judgment
  • evasiveness 

and mockery are all techniques that are used to intimidate and to neutralize potential competitors. Bureaucratic bosses use “tough talk” and abusive non-verbal gestures to preserve a system in which their importance is unchallenged, and to model what are considered appropriate managerial behaviors for aspiring bureaucratic offspring. Few at work question the inappropriateness of name-calling, yelling, interrupting, and profanity. These are signs of a “tough” manager, one who has received a long tether of behavioral latitude from managers who have taught them the trade of verbal tyranny. Because we believe that people advance based on skills, merit, and the Protestant Work Ethic, we have a tendency to blame employee victims when boss speech turns abusive. “Civilization requires civility. Words matter” [From the NEH civility tour].

Aggressive speech is generated more from a remnant of cultural legacy than from a conscious attempt to control language. Bullies become more dogged, more hurtful, and more wedded to their viewpoint when opponents offer up a challenge. Presumptive arrogance precedes their speech, coloring their monologue with prescriptives. Bullies present their viewpoints as absolutes, at the same time correcting the viewpoints of others. They do not use kid gloves, they do not pull any punches, and they do not attempt to present messages in a way that makes them more palatable. A leftover relic from the Age of Power (Belbin, 2001), man’s desire for verbal dominance continues as a necessary means of ego’s survival. Directive speech is the prerogative of managerial elitism, an attempt at “denial, blaming, alibiing” (Branden, 1998, p. 54).

The language of dominance is spoken at and not with another person, so the outcome of conversational contestants is asymmetrical. As a bully my speech is unconstrained, offered to an audience whose protest evokes my displeasure. It is a full court press to prove managerial rightness, a match between a two-fisted contestant and one with a fist tied behind his back. Bullying managers employ “skilled incompetence,” (Argyris, 2002) which consists of:

1.  sending a message that is inconsistent;

2.  acting as if it is not inconsistent;

3.  making steps 1 and 2 undiscussible; and

4.  making the undiscussability undiscussable.

Communicate in a manner that is mutual. Because words are the currency of behavioral exchange, they should be chosen circumspectly. The residue that your words leaves on other people may be long lasting in its effects, and may in some cases cause irreparable damage.

Step lightly.



Argyris, C.  (2002).  Double-loop learning, teaching, and research.  Academy of Management Learning & Education, 1, pp. 206-218.

Bedeian, A. G. (2002). The dean’s disease: How the darker side of power manifests itself in the office of dean. The Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2, pp. 164-173.

Belbin, R. M.  (2001).  Managing without power:  Gender relationships in the story of human evolution.  San Diego, CA:  Elsevier Science & Technology Books.

Branden, N. (1998). Self-esteem at work: How confident people make powerful companies (p. 54). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Evans, P. (1996). The verbally abusive relationship: How to recognize it and how to respond (p. 29). Avon, MA:  Adams Media Corporation.

MacLeod, N.  (1984).  Womenclature:  The queen bee syndrome:  Poems (p. 9).  Tampa, FL:  American Studies Press.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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One Response
  1. Love the post, especially the emphasis on effective communication vs. abuse. Also appreciate the citations from Evans and Branden, both of whom I’m familiar with. Question: I see a reference to Argyris in the post, but don’t see an entry in the References list–did I miss that? I’m wondering if it’s something by Chris Argyris.


  2. Donn King on February 18th, 2011 at 10:26 pm