The Power and Pitfalls of Threats: Lessons from Real-Life Examples

Threats can be powerful tools for achieving desired outcomes. By carefully considering their timing, cost, reasonableness, and the motivation behind them, threats can be used effectively. However, it is crucial to avoid rash or bullying behavior, maintain respect and credibility, an

Josh Ether

6/11/20212 min read

Threats can be a powerful tool to grab attention, challenge the status quo, or set precedents. However, their effectiveness and consequences depend on several factors. Let's delve into real-life examples to understand the practicality and relatability of threats.

One notable case is the 1981 air traffic controller strike in the United States. Facing negotiations over wages and benefits, nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike. President Ronald Reagan, a new president at the time, issued a threat: if they didn't report for work within 48 hours, they would be fired. Despite skepticism from the controllers, Reagan followed through and terminated 11,359 employees. This decisive action not only ended the strike but also led to the decertification of the air traffic controllers union. Reagan's credibility was boosted, laying the groundwork for subsequent successes in his presidency.

From this example, we learn that threats are effective when they capture attention and signal a rejection of the status quo. However, they come with a cost, as following through can be financially and logistically challenging. It is crucial to ensure that the threat is more costly for the counterpart than for oneself.

Examining two different strike scenarios provides further insights. In 1984, Canadian Auto Workers went on strike against General Motors. Each day of the strike caused significant financial losses for the company. After 13 days, General Motors conceded to the key demands of the workers, illustrating the success of their threat. On the other hand, in 1985, Hormel meat-packers in Minnesota went on strike, but the management was prepared to keep production going. They hired replacement workers willing to accept lower wages, ultimately resulting in the meat-packers losing their jobs. In this case, the meat-packers overestimated the impact of their threat, leading to their defeat.

These examples highlight the importance of assessing the balance of power and making reasonable demands when issuing threats. Unreasonable demands, as seen in the hostage situations in Iraq, can lead to tragic consequences. In 2004, South Korean and Filipino nationals were taken hostage in separate incidents. The captors issued threats demanding military forces to be withdrawn. South Korea refused and tragically, the hostage was decapitated. However, the Philippine government swiftly complied with the demand, leading to the release of the hostage. This example demonstrates that reasonable demands are more likely to elicit compliance.

When using threats, it is essential to consider interests and avoid rash or bullying behavior. Threats should aim to motivate rather than punish. Building respect and credibility is crucial for long-term relationships. The delivery of threats must be precise, setting clear deadlines and outlining specific consequences. Failure to follow through on threats undermines credibility, while executing threats can be costly.

When faced with threats, it is natural to crave retaliation. However, escalating conflict should be avoided. Instead, it is advisable to understand the motivation behind the threat. The threat issuer may feel neglected, frustrated, or offended, seeking attention and understanding. Engaging in dialogue, expressing empathy, and soothing their concerns can be effective strategies. Additionally, identifying pragmatic threats and working towards creative solutions to address them can help deescalate the situation. Bluffing threats, driven by past practices or insecurities, should be confronted or ignored. As a last resort, delivering a counter threat to establish credibility and encourage alternative solutions can be considered.