On the Discrediting of People

The cen­tral means by which infor­mal pow­er is main­tained in an orga­ni­za­tion is all too often through the dis­cred­it­ing and exclu­sion of peo­ple. This cre­ates a tight cir­cle of con­trol and a cul­ture based on gen­er­al­ized per­for­mance anx­i­ety, com­pe­ti­tions, fixed mind­sets, and fears of scarci­ty. Because it’s “cul­ture,” these fac­tors tend to be felt — but are spo­ken of only in the back­ground. They may not even be that obvi­ous in group meet­ings where peo­ple must show up and look coop­er­a­tive. Many good things may seem to be going on. Pro­grams are get­ting car­ried out, peo­ple are being served and help­ing each oth­er — at least on the sur­face. But under­neath it, the dis­cred­it­ing and exclu­sion of peo­ple still works effec­tive­ly as a con­trol mech­a­nism. Perks still flow to the best discreditor. 

A man­ag­er is asked to talk with a tech­ni­cal con­sul­tant regard­ing a prob­lem she is fac­ing in one of her teams. The two meet but the man­ag­er does­n’t ask the con­sul­tant for an engage­ment. Lat­er the con­sul­tant says with a cer­tain smirk­ing tone to one of the orga­ni­za­tion’s exec­u­tives, “Well, it was just a “check the box” kind of meet­ing.” He does­n’t have to say more. It even sounds thought­ful. But the true impli­ca­tion is she’s not open to his exper­tise, beg­ging the ques­tion of her motives, not his.


Sure­ly, it is the con­sul­tant who is ratio­nal­iz­ing his lack of suc­cess, and doing it in a way that is care­ful and sub­tle but also quite demean­ing. Maybe he did­n’t present him­self very well. Maybe he is actu­al­ly quite arro­gant in the way he comes across. Maybe the man­ag­er was con­cerned about the con­sul­tan­t’s con­trol issues. It real­ly does­n’t mat­ter what actu­al­ly hap­pened. The point is that he treats the sit­u­a­tion as if he has been dis­cred­it­ed by the man­ag­er and he there­fore dis­cred­its in return, in the back­ground, with­out the man­ag­er know­ing — in a place where her rep­u­ta­tion is made or unmade. AKA, this is retal­i­a­tion. This cre­ates a nasty cycle, and the game is which per­son is bet­ter at the dis­cred­it­ing process. If he can dis­cred­it the man­ag­er, even if he does­n’t get the engage­ment, he comes out on top. And if he’s a par­tic­u­lar­ly good and polit­i­cal play­er, he may very well win the game — depend­ing on how he can influ­ence oth­ers to agree with his neg­a­tive assessments.

If you look close­ly at the cul­ture of such an orga­ni­za­tion, you may see this inter­per­son­al vio­lence going on almost all the time. Meet­ings with top lead­ers may be par­tic­u­lar­ly prone to sub­tle and not so sub­tle put-downs and vague con­ver­sa­tions that don’t go beyond where peo­ple imag­ine dis­cred­it­ing will begin. This would be espe­cial­ly true where the top per­son typ­i­cal­ly man­ages by dis­cred­it­ing oth­ers, too. No one wants to be the tar­get — and when that top per­son is around lit­er­al­ly any­thing can become a source of a dis­cred­it­ing exchange. If you par­tic­i­pate, you can be dis­cred­it­ed for what you say. If you don’t, you can be dis­cred­it­ed for not speak­ing up. If you speak your truth with some emo­tion, you can be dis­cred­it­ed for the pas­sion. If you speak with­out pas­sion, it’s clear you are not “all in.” Try­ing to fight being dis­cred­it­ed is cause for fur­ther dis­cred­it­ing. Who­ev­er dis­cred­its oth­ers best wins.

The pat­terns of dis­cred­it­ing are built into sto­ries and habits that pro­tect the mem­bers of the orga­ni­za­tion from the deep pain of what is real­ly going on. They build alliances in hope of stop­ping the process, at least with­in some sup­port­ive, clos­er circle.

It is wise to remem­ber that these pat­terns of dis­cred­it­ing are broad­er than any one orga­ni­za­tion. They are insti­tu­tion­al, locked up in the past with foun­da­tions deep in our com­mon ground. Dis­crim­i­na­tion against peo­ple of col­or — dis­crim­i­na­tion of all kinds — is full of dis­cred­it­ing, a mod­el for our per­son­al and col­lec­tive shad­ows. Fer­gu­son is no mis­take — nor the St. Louis Fam­i­ly Court — nor cer­tain­ly, think­ing of women, Cos­by. Learn­ing to blame the vic­tim, in what­ev­er form, becomes a mas­sive­ly impor­tant skill to sup­port the worst of our dying, self-jus­ti­fy­ing, most igno­rant per­spec­tives. This is the soci­ety we live in, and in a last gasp it is the very thing that keeps try­ing to recre­ate itself, as if dis­cred­it­ing could ever actu­al­ly result in some more pos­i­tive, con­struc­tive ver­sion of real­i­ty, as if it could result in hap­pi­ness or peace or, con­sid­er­ing orga­ni­za­tions, some­thing like “pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.”

Which total­ly begs the ques­tion of where all this dis­cred­it­ing actu­al­ly comes from — the soul of the machin­ery itself. You be the ana­lyst on this one. Where do you think dis­cred­it­ing comes from in this soci­ety, real­ly? What do you believe about it’s deep­est per­son­al sources? And maybe, also, what does it do to the discreditor? 

In fact — this is the last ques­tion — what if any­thing does this have to do with you and me? What does it have to do with any form of us?


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  • It comes from our small, inse­cure lit­tle “i” want­i­ng to be a grand, large, big “I.” And in order to do so, to be so, to feel so, I need to min­i­mize you, make you irrel­e­vant, mar­gin­al­ize you…so I feel some sense of grandios­i­ty, some sense of me that I can­not feel inside, some sense of me that was lost a long, long time ago and have been seek­ing on the “out­side” at your expense. I can­not feel like a “some­body” unless I make you feel like a “nobody.”

  • Peter~

    Per­fect­ly said. Find­ing the “some sense of me that I can­not feel inside” is a very accu­rate way to say it — and has exten­sions to our cul­ture at large which, I believe, strug­gles might­i­ly with the true worth of human beings.

    Thank you so much for stop­ping by to leave a com­ment. Much appre­ci­a­tion to you!


  • Hi Dan

    Many than for a very thought pro­vok­ing arti­cle, that was well writ­ten. I enjoyed the read, and have shared this fur­ther to my audience.

  • Frank~

    Thank you so much. I’m hon­ored that you shared this post. You pro­vide so much amaz­ing con­tent for your fol­low­ers! High­ly rec­om­mend­ed: FOLLOW FRANK GAINSFORD!

    All the best

  • Dan,

    A great piece beau­ti­ful­ly framed around a tru­ly chal­leng­ing sub­ject and behav­ior pattern.

    So endem­ic of the post-Indus­tri­al era, root­ed in fear, pow­er, author­i­ty, and the machi­na­tions gen­er­at­ed thereby.


  • Doug~

    Thank you for your com­ment! Indeed, dis­cred­it­ing and exclu­sion are an inher­i­tance. Even as we learn to become more gen­er­a­tive, the past can still dis­guise itself in a naive belief we have ful­ly escaped. This is why peo­ple like you are so impor­tant — to be artic­u­late, thought­ful, and pas­sion­ate about the new direc­tions, mak­ing sure — to quote The Who — “we don’t get fooled again.”

    It’s won­der­ful to see you here!


  • Excel­lent post, Dan. A very com­mon prob­lem all around but for pur­pos­es of this com­ment I’ll focus on orga­ni­za­tions. As you not­ed, when lead­ers in a posi­tion of pow­er use this tac­tic rou­tine­ly the peo­ple in the orga­ni­za­tion work to devel­op strate­gies to cope and pro­tect them­selves. These efforts con­sume an enor­mous amount of ener­gy and cre­ativ­i­ty that could be put to much bet­ter use. It is very dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to call out this behav­ior to do the pow­er inequal­i­ty and fear of retal­i­a­tion or worse, los­ing their job. Some­times when I have worked with these lead­ers I encour­age them to “just say what it is” with­out the unnec­es­sary com­men­tary and dis­cred­it­ing behav­ior but it seems beyond them. More words than would be appro­pri­ate here would be need­ed to explore this ful­ly or delve into the psy­chol­o­gy behind it but I would love if some­how this mes­sage could it home and put an end to the destruc­tive and waste­ful behav­ior. I guess I’m a lit­tle bit pas­sion­ate about this one. 🙂 Well done.

  • Scott~

    Thank you so much — it’s clear you have expe­ri­enced the pat­tern I’m express­ing. It is waste­ful — very waste­ful, and it is dif­fi­cult to know what to do when it “seems beyond” the client. I believe this phe­nom­e­non requires a much deep­er dia­logue: e.g., what is “dis­cred­it­ing” behav­ior? where does it come from? what can any of us do about it in the moment and in the big­ger con­text of orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture? how are our own actions implicated? 

    This may not be a dia­logue ini­tial­ly with the client, but with our­selves so that we can begin to inter­vene more effec­tive­ly, have strate­gies and don’t get so hooked (I know I do!) 

    And thanks for say­ing you are pas­sion­ate about this! I believe it is absolute­ly worth our pas­sion and our clar­i­ty as to why and how the pat­tern must change.

    All the best

  • Very pow­er­ful stuff, chal­lenges me a lot. Thanks for the arti­cle! Some­thing I do strug­gle with..

  • Louis Carrion wrote:

    I have seen this in action many places I have worked through­out the years and it is a shame since it wastes resources and makes a work envi­ron­ment less fun and productive.
    Peo­ple have to be bal­anced and con­fi­dent in their abil­i­ties and that man­age­ment will rec­og­nize hard work, so they will not wor­ry about this type of neg­a­tive competing.
    Its a shame that we have this com­pet­i­tive­ness but it is built into soci­ety, old fash­ioned val­ues of hard work pays off seems to have been replaced by do what­ev­er it takes to get suc­cess­ful, pro­mo­tion etc.., which breeds this kind of envi­ron­ment. Some peo­ple may not even real­ize what they are doing it is so much part of the culture.
    Seems to me that it has to be worked hard from the top lead­er­ship to make an orga­ni­za­tion that is free of this type of envi­ron­ment but I believe it would pay off in the end.
    Thanks for this arti­cle it is very well thought out about an issue in many work places in soci­ety today.

  • Lou!

    Thank you so much for your com­ment — espe­cial­ly your per­spec­tive on the impor­tance of hard work — and the impor­tance of build­ing work­place cul­tures that are both pro­duc­tive and fun. It seems that some “old fash­ioned” val­ues may not be so old fash­ioned at all, but we have for­got­ten their impor­tance to our lives and our work.

    All the best to you, and thanks again for stop­ping by~


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