Last Saturday, I sat on a bleacher, watching my favorite 10 year-old play baseball. He is the catcher for his team. He has the proportions and beauty worthy of a Renaissance sculpture, but he is compact and a little small for his age. Looking at him, I guess he weighs in around 60 pounds.
I was startled watching him play. He wore bulky black body padding from ankle to neck, and a red metal, helmet-like mask covered his face. In his catcher’s gear, he looks like Iron Man. He chased the players trying to run home back to third base by holding the baseball in his right hand as if it were a weapon, shaking his shoulders back and forth with the ferocity of a miniature Robert Downey Jr.
After the game, I asked him about his aggressive style. He told me that wearing a mask makes it impossible to use his facial expressions to intimidate his opponents, so he learned how to be scary with his body.
It reminded me of a story told by a friend about a performance between two nurses discussing a clinical matter. One nurse pointed her finger like a gun at her coworker. She did not let the other nurse get in a sentence, blocking her attempts to speak without listening. All hope of productive communication was lost, and the other nurse sulked back to third base. My friend said that watching the bullying nurse use her body to be scary reminded her of this Pink Floyd lyric:
And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around.
Little Leaguers and nurses are not the only people who use their bodies to be scary. I’ve had fingers shaken at me by doctors too. I’ve been threatened with rolling eyes, words launched in tones of sarcasm, even yelling, at work. While it’s unpleasant, these behaviors send up a red flag signaling to me this person is probably telling me to do something that is against policy or unsafe. Or, they might be covering up a mistake they made. They may be afraid of revealing something they don’t know. Whatever, I stay focused on the issue, while directing the conversation towards policy and scope of practice. Sometimes it works.
The thing is no one wins when communication at work breaks down to this level. At its worst, patient care suffers. Who hasn’t seen the code from hell when a team leader lost control of the situation by intimidating the rest of the code team? How many errors occur because someone says, “just do it”, when you know the “it” is against policy or safe practice, and no one effectively stands up to him or her?
Aggressive body language is a strength on a sports field, where it assists in winning games. In the workplace, there is not an opposing team. We are all there to take care of patients. Chasing coworkers away by intimidation might make you feel good in the moment, but you won’t have a team covering the other bases when you need them.