Maybe it's just called "Being a Jerk"
March 7, 2015 7:49 PM   Subscribe

So, I was wondering if there was nice, tight term for this interpersonal communication/relationship dynamic I've seen at work. Details within!

Hi all,

I'm wondering if there is a word or phrase for a specific interpersonal dynamic that I've seen between my boss and myself, as well as other employees. It goes like this:


1. My boss, Bob, asked his employee, Erica to do something that that was in the scope of her job responsibility, but needed the project done under a tight timeframe.

2. Erica put in extra hours over the week, didn't get sleep, didn't do her laundry, etc. but got it done.

3. Erica then takes an approved day of vacation (not a comp day) to try to recover.

4. Rather than giving her the space to recover, Bob calls her for a non-emergency item on her vacation day.

5. Erica doesn't respond, because the policy is that a person only needs to respond when it's an emergency.

6. When Erica does finally respond (when she returns to work), Bob acknowledges that he was calling for a non-emergency item and it probably could have waited, but then rather than just say it was his bad for calling, or reiterate gratitude for Erica making him look good the week before, he goes on the attack, and complains that he needs to be able to get in touch with her, and that her overall availability has been an issue for him. This is the first Erica has heard of this concern.

7. Erica feels blindsided and angry.


What I'm looking for is a word or phrase for that moment when a person could deescalate a potential conflict when it becomes clear that they had a role in creating the conflict or they are wrong, but instead, for some reason, in that moment the person decides to escalate - broadening the scope of the complaint by introducing a new item of concern that blindsides the first person (In this case, both Bob and Erica had agreed that you only contact vacationing staff for an emergency. Since it wasn't an emergency, Erica was expecting an apology. Instead, she got dinged. It felt worse to her because she just put in extra work to make Bob look good.)

In our case, Erica is the second person who ended up leaving our organization over this dynamic. When I asked her why, she said that she didn't like working at a place where 'even when she was right, she was wrong' and she felt nothing but anger at Bob. I thought this was a pretty good phrase, but was wondering if there was another term for it.

I thought it was 'gas lighting', but my understanding is that the accusation has to be false - in this case it's true - Bob really was having problems getting in touch with Erica. (Ironically, because bob takes on too many projects, he's often in meetings, and therefore misses connecting with staff in person. So it's actually Bob's fault, but he's not acknowledging the busy-ness of his schedule, thereby making it Erica's fault).

I also thought about the word 'misdirection', because rather than apologize for calling, Bob misdirected the conversation to a new topic of complaint. (Still making her 'wrong'), but that might not get at it either.

So, I was wondering if anyone had any ideas about what phrase might cover an interpersonal dynamic like this. Or is "Even when you're right, you're wrong" the best there is?

Thanks for thinking about it!
posted by It's a Parasox to Human Relations (24 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Going on the defensive?
posted by Ruki at 7:56 PM on March 7, 2015

Maybe shifting goalposts.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:56 PM on March 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

Flipping the script?
posted by cecic at 8:01 PM on March 7, 2015

I'd call it "doubling down." Rather than admit his first accusation was baseless, Bob makes a second accusation to try to shift blame away from himself and, as you say, make the other person feel wrong even when they're obviously right. It's not exactly right, because he's not "doubling" on the same exact thing, but I think it captures the spirit.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:03 PM on March 7, 2015 [40 favorites]

This question about the term double down has examples that may be on point.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:04 PM on March 7, 2015

And here's a good list of psychological manipulations. Projecting blame, Rationalization, and Guilt-tripping all seem to apply.
posted by cecic at 8:06 PM on March 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

I call this tactic the DAF Spiral -- Debate, Argument, Fight. The boss (consciously or subconsciously) escalated it every time he realized he was wrong. "Doubling down" is also good.
posted by Etrigan at 8:10 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's kind of a straw man argument. The complaint is one thing then morphs into something else that is in no way connected to the original issue since her being unavailable did not in any way affect the nonemergency call. But now suddenly it's exaggerated into her not ever being available.

From wikipedia:
A: We should relax the laws on beer.
B: No, any society with unrestricted access to intoxicants loses its work ethic and goes only for immediate gratification.
The proposal was to relax laws on beer. Person B has exaggerated this to a position that is harder to defend, i.e., "unrestricted access to intoxicants". It is a logical fallacy because Person A never made that claim.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 8:15 PM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

It sounds like defense mechanisms at work. The boss is wrong, and knows it, and feels guilty, but is trying to frame the situation so that the employee takes on the guilt he's trying to assign, relieving him from guilt.
posted by Miko at 8:18 PM on March 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think the terms in here so far are on track, but it also sounds like Bob has a habit of setting up his underlings for failure (a good boss sets up subordinates for success). He sounds like a real dick.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:26 PM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Asshole control freak
posted by bleep at 8:49 PM on March 7, 2015 [24 favorites]

That is the moment of ego investment, when the person decides that they can't back down from their previous acts without admitting that they were wrong, so they decide to attempt to rationalize them however they can. "I may be technically in the wrong, but you've committed the cardinal sin of going against the spirit of the thing" is basically the go-to rhetorical position for a certain personality type when it becomes clear that they've been caught out because it allows them to cast maximum sanctimony while excusing their own misdeeds.
posted by feloniousmonk at 8:59 PM on March 7, 2015 [10 favorites]

My take on that enchange is that the boss knows he was wrong but cannot appear apologetic to one of his underlings. It's about protecting his status, not about escalating the conflict.
posted by deathpanels at 9:04 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

posted by jaguar at 9:11 PM on March 7, 2015

This strikes me more as bullying and straight up hostility. Rather than back off, he invented a responsibility that she doesn't have and said she's falling at it.
posted by rhizome at 10:06 PM on March 7, 2015

Bob is running a sick system.
posted by flabdablet at 10:12 PM on March 7, 2015 [14 favorites]

The page cecic referenced captures some of it with the term
Diversion - Rather than giving a straight answer, the manipulator will often change the subject, often without the change being noticed.
Admittedly, the change did not go un-noticed in the situation described.

I might suggest a further qualification based upon whether the 2nd topic is a real issue or a fake issue constructed on the spot.

The term "defensiveness" may be technically correct, but only in a weakly generic sense. The described behavior would seem to be primarily an aggressive escalation (and diversion?) by the boss to preserve his (perceived) dominance.
posted by doctor tough love at 10:21 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Sounds a little like an Extinction Burst, maybe? Except without the actual extinction, unfortunately for you all.
posted by Coaticass at 10:32 PM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

It sounds like behaviour on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder spectrum.

He got destabilised from his Charming position when Erica rejected his effort at condescending grandiosity ['Oh sorry darl, it wasn't an emergency!'] that caused him to break her boundary - but she was supposed to keep functioning for him as she had been doing previously ['oh, that's all right! Anytime!'] Not doing that was perceived as criticism, and he escalated in NPD style.

Asserting her boundary didn't earn respect or apologies because it was perceived as a wounding personal criticism. The fault cannot ever rest with the NPD. Punishment, confusion, blame ensue for the victim in an NPD encounter. There will be no apology, nor an epiphany about responsibility, respect for others.
posted by honey-barbara at 10:42 PM on March 7, 2015 [18 favorites]

DARVO - Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. This quote from the coiner of the term sounds very similar to Erica's situation:

[T]he offender rapidly creates the impression that the abuser is the wronged one, while the victim or concerned observer is the offender. Figure and ground are completely reversed. [...] The offender is on the offense and the person attempting to hold the offender accountable is put on the defense.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 3:32 PM on March 8, 2015 [9 favorites]

I thought it was 'gas lighting', but my understanding is that the accusation has to be false - in this case it's true - Bob really was having problems getting in touch with Erica.

Except by your own account it wasn't completely true. In this case he made a new accusation, "that her overall availability has been an issue for him." after he acknowledged his call wasn't an emergency.

And, imho, the veracity of the claim needn't be true or false to undermine the individual for it to be gas lighting because the tactic is meant to make the accused doubt themselves.
posted by redindiaink at 6:30 AM on March 10, 2015

#1, 6 & 7, at the very least
posted by rhizome at 11:29 AM on March 10, 2015

Partially it sounds like fight or flight reflex. I know that sometimes when I take the debate / decision making process a little too personally, it becomes a lot easier and mentally rewarding to verbally attack back on all fronts. At the expense of being effective, usually.

(On the other hand, when your opposition's argument is "No, I don't want that," effective debate walked out the door a long time ago.)

And I'll offer a separate analysis nobody else has mentioned: Erica giving feedback to her boss ('you shouldn't have called me about non-emergencies on my day off') is a role reversal. A not a politically sound reveral. And one very likely to trigger a fight or flight response. Erica would do well to figure out more constructive ways of coping than surprise discussions with management about behaviors related to the holes they appear to have dug themselves into. We can both agree that better management could have given comp time and apologized before this conversation even came up, we don't live in a world where you can fire your boss, and until we do, giving your boss unsought for criticism is going to be fraught with risk.
posted by pwnguin at 9:13 AM on March 13, 2015

I'd call it smoke-screening, to protect his status and not have to apologize, as deathpanels said. Bob is totally doing management wrong and will continue to have people leave over that habit.

Erica is doing it wrong, too. Her strategy is to answer the call, appear confused, and ask "you called me for this on my day off?". Then come back to work and request a chat about expectations of being on-call on off-duty days. Much stronger ground having been the wronged party who cooperated anyway.

Of course, then Bob would make it Erica's fault he had to call in the first place. She obviously didn't set it up properly so that nobody would need her for the day. Sometimes you can't win. Bobs suck.
posted by ctmf at 2:29 PM on April 19, 2015

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