Tag Archives: coercion

The Johnson Treatment

The Johnson Treatment wikipedia.org
 A Hapless Victim                 wikipedia.org

If it doesn’t seem quite fair to be an earwitness to the unraveling of one man’s perfectly ordered world, the compensation of hearing the “Johnson Treatment” first hand is justification enough.

From a communications perspective President Lyndon Johnson was a fascinating figure.  Most political communication scholars mention his speeches, particularly the disastrous ones defending the Vietnam War and the successful ones on civil rights.  Indeed, his address to a joint session of Congress arguing for voter rights legislation in March of 1965, is one of the towering achievements of the presidency.  He virtually shamed his southern colleagues into relinquishing their stranglehold on voter access, especially in the south. Johnson’s rhetoric could be lumbering and labored.  And he could be terribly insensitive. But in that speech the angels sang, and the nation finally got a Voting Rights Act that would enfranchise millions.

Johnson the communicator is also remembered for another reason that can be summed up in three words: the Johnson Treatment.  To put it simply, the former Senate Minority Leader was an incredibly persuasive man in one-to-one meetings with his colleagues.  To go through the experience was to be subjected to a nonstop barrage of arguments, pleadings, commands, threats and intimidation until the target could take no more.  Some of what he did was genuine persuasion.  Some was simply hammer-lock coercion building off Johnson’s power in the Senate, and later, as the accidental president.

We know this from first-hand accounts of those who faced the Johnson gauntlet.  But we can also hear what the treatment sounded like.

It wasn’t just Richard Nixon who recorded many of his White House conversations.  Johnson taped many of his own phone calls.  And so we have a record of endless day and late night conversations, sometimes with Johnson just thinking out loud (especially with his Senate mentor, Richard Russell).  But among the calls are a number where Johnson is demanding compliance from a cabinet member, a senator, or some other victim in the far-flung federal establishment.  We can hear the insistent gale force pressure of his words overwhelming a surprised minion, some of whom were not happy to be strong-armed.

“Sarge was reluctant to accept the post; LBJ refused to take “no” for an answer.”

sargemt shriver
             Sargent Shriver

Such was the case with a fateful 1964 call to Sargent Shriver, who was then living his dream job as head of the Peace Corps.  Shriver loved the agency, with its mission of humanitarian work performed by a growing cadre of the young and idealistic Americans.  But Johnson had bigger plans for the Marylander and former Kennedy administration official.  He wanted Shriver to head up the ambitious but unbelievably complicated effort of the administration to wage a full-scale “War on Poverty.”  If the idea itself was inspiring, Shriver surely knew that it would be a hornet’s nest of overlapping and competing federal programs.  It promised all the organizational headaches that were mostly avoided in the much smaller Peace Corps program.

Here’s the call, which starts with a pause while White House operators bring the two together:


If it doesn’t seem quite fair to be an earwitness to the unraveling of one man’s perfectly ordered world, the compensation of hearing the Johnson treatment first hand is justification enough.  The call is reminder that persuasion is not always polite, fair, or pretty.  But fascinating?


By the way, by most accounts, Shriver brought credit and success to the mammoth undertaking of the administration’s  War on Poverty.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu



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What Counts as Genuine Persuasion?

Bill Lumbergh in Office Space
Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh in the film, Office Space

When there are differences of opinion, the richest forms of communication still allow those with contrasting views to walk away, without penalties. 

The word “persuasion” is the preferred term to identify moments when one individual or group attempts to alter the beliefs or behaviors of another.  But the word is frequently misused, especially if one “persuader” has used extra-verbal inducements to get what he or she wants. It’s interesting that when Aristotle wrote his own study of persuasion 2500 years ago, he noted that the use of knives and torture counted as “inartistic” forms of influence.  He didn’t miss much.  He would no doubt marvel at the additional bludgeons we moderns use to threaten physical or psychological harm.  The modern equivalent of torture might be the denial of fair compensation, extortion, the possibility of a bad job review.  The ways we can cow each other are nearly endless.

Properly used, “Persuasion” occurs when an individual freely assents to what another asks. No coercion. No risk of retribution.  No organizational advantage has figured in the outcome.  Everything else that may look like persuasion is really what could be called  “compliance-gaining,” as when a boss “asks” an employee to work late.

This is not just an academic distinction with little real-world application.  The difference actually matters. To fully understand persuasion we need to know who or what is actually doing the heavy lifting. The use of threats, power or position are all coercive, a fact that takes away a receiver’s opportunity to truly exercise their own judgment. 

As a student of this subject, I’m not especially interested in the idea of compliance. In communication terms  there’s not that much going on.  There’s no grace in using force or a power advantage.  In such cases the unequal distribution of power does most of the work.  It’s like shooting animals within a fenced game reserve.  It’s easily done, but not very sporting.

What is interesting is how we manage to perpetuate the delusion of free choice. My impression is that managers often see themselves as having a knack for engaging with employees, as with the smarmy Bill Lumbergh in the iconic film, Office Space (1999).  The soul-destroying demands made by Gary Cole’s character are covered in a sticky syrup of forced collegiality. Lumbergh may believe he has the pulse of the office, but the film knows better.  As this clip from U-tube shows, he doesn’t have a clue.

By contrast, there’s real pleasure in participating in communication where every side retains the right to walk away with no penalties. That fulfills our faith in a democratic values, especially another person’s right to their opinion. That’s why democracies are called “open societies.”

The problem is the indiscriminate mixing of persuasion and compliance-gaining as more or less the same thing . For example, journalist Steven Greenhouse misses the point when he notes in a recent Atlantic article that Wal-Mart “persuades” its employees to be anti-union. What his otherwise useful reporting actually describes is pure coercion. Try and unionize and you are simply out of a job, or your unit is shut down. Similarly, courses and texts in “leadership” often trade heavily in the language of equal-to-equal communication, ignoring explicit organizational hierarchies.  All of this is represented in phrases like “team-building” and “group problem-solving:” the kinds of things we are likely to hear from faux-egalitarians like Lumbergh.

No one wants to be the apparent autocrat issuing orders. Most of us would like to be seen as good listeners open to the ideas of others.  But openness needs to be earned by accepting the right of an audience member to say no, without penalties.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu