June 24, 2008

He's Not Yelling At You Because He's Angry


What happened is this: the junior lawyer messed up.  Two years ago, he was supposed to do X, but instead did Y, because back then that's what he thought he was supposed to do.

In retrospect, it was poor judgment, but that's the way it went down.

Two years later all hell breaks loose, as they say, and Tom gets a call at his house at 8pm from one of the partners who is having a seizure.  "Do you remember blah blah blah?  You did X?  How could you do X?  Do you realize what you've done?"

Thing is, in those intervening two years about a thousand other similar X/Y scenarios have passed through his desk, he neither remembers blah blah blah, nor even at what point in his career he stopped doing X and started doing Y.  Do you remember saying "aminal" instead of "animal?"  same thing.

The next day he's pulled in before a bunch of junior partners and a bunch of senior partners and his junior partner lays into him: poor judgment, disastrous results, "this was a major client of the general counsel!"  consequences, retributions, "this kind of thing will follow you around for the rest of your life!" and "I can't even protect myself, let alone you!" and on and on.

And its an old and primitive reaction to this kind of thing, he withdraws, he apologizes, he admits the mistake, he is guilty and ashamed but also powerless, what can he do?  He starts to fantasize about getting out of here, about AAPL going to 300, about writing the novel, about hitting the guy in the throat with the head of the other guy, but ultimately he comes back to his own embarrassment. He wonders, can I get reported to the bar for this?  I didn't think so, but maybe?  he slinks back to his desk, beaten. 

It's true: he ruined Christmas.


But let's take a closer look.

They are yelling at him because they want him to eat it, to take it, all of it, leaving no room for doubt that it wasn't all his fault. Not in reality, but psychologically.  He takes all the blame, but more importantly, when he does, he accepts it.  That's the move.  The partner is yelling because he wants the guy to accept all the responsibility; and as he does, the partner will start to believe it himself.  You're to blame means I'm not to blame.

Here's how you handle a madman in a tirade: you point to the sand-- and the line you put there.  You interrupt him, stop him dead in his tracks, and say this:  I absolutely messed this up, I accept it.  But let me be clear about something: I wasn't being lazy or sloppy-- I did what I thought was the correct thing, it was just wrong.  Ok, I accept that.  But the next part is this: if this is so important, why did no one notice it for two years?  My work is supposed to be monitored, right?  Ultimately, the junior partner is responsible for my work, right?  Did it not occur to anyone that this very important client of the general counsel's-- no one thought to ask, hey, where's blah blah blah?  What happened with blah blah blah?  Who was working on it?  Did they do X or Y?  No one checked up on this very important matter?

Look, I'll do anything necessary to fix it, whatever you need me to do I'll do it.  But I'm only taking responsibility for my mistake, not for the two intervening years that this important matter was not important enough for anyone to ever ask me a question about it.

How was I able to ruin Christmas?


The guy doesn't want to say this, he thinks it will make things worse, because when his Dad yelled at him, anything he said would make it worse.  So he just shut down, shut up.

He's worried that if he gets fired and tries to apply for a new job, when they call the old firm the junior partner will malign him to the new bosses.  Wrong.  He's going to malign you anyway, but if you've accepted all responsibility, and he has convinced himself that you bear all responsibility, then he'll actually rip you worse.   Your only protection is to draw a line in the sand, my buck stops here.  So when he tries to slam you to the prospective employer on the phone, he'll be consciously aware that he screwed up as well.  "Tom sucks as an employee, but it turns out I suck as a manager.  So, take that into consideration." 


None of this applies if you're actually the boss.

When you are the superior, the boss, the father, whatever, then yelling insanely is never the right move.  If your subordinate screwed up, then you screwed up.  The buck is always yours no matter where it stops.  "Ok, we screwed up, here's what we need to do to fix it, and to prevent it from happening again..."


But there are a group of people who cultivate yelling as a strategy.  It's not their nature to yell, they didn't do it before in their lives.  They're not doing it despite their position in life, they're doing it because of their position in life.  A position that was supposed to automatically define them, but turned out empty.  "(I thought being a junior partner would mean something.)"  Nope.

They are yelling to communicate something about their identity.  They're sending you a message.  Not how angry they are, but rather that they are very important.  They yell about this not because this is a big deal, but because they are so important, so pivotal, such a huge player that there is so much on them that this is "yet another thing".  No, it's true, I'm huge, I'm an attending in a major hospital for Christ's sake, if you knew how much I have to worry about-- look how I yell at the med student, the cashier, the telemarketer, I'm stressed out because I'm matter.

External validation of identity almost always means: an existence without meaning.


And then there's the junior... (Below threshold)

June 25, 2008 3:55 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

And then there's the junior lawyer who only feels sorry about getting caught - in fact he responds with anger. How dare they catch me in my lies! He shows no remorse to people he has harmed. If the junior lawyer ever made a single attempt to say he was sorry, he would have avoided all the legal trouble and problems finding other employment.

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Notice how IV ("None of thi... (Below threshold)

June 25, 2008 6:41 AM | Posted by espelho: | Reply

Notice how IV ("None of this applies if you're actually the boss.") spoils the flow of the story? It seems to jump out of the story into an external reality, like waking from a dream for just long enough to see that it's still early before going back to sleep into a continuation of the same dream.

So there are layers of reality here. IV is the outermost layer, the real world. Inside that, I ("What happened is this:") describes the law firm. And inside that again, III ("he thinks it will make things worse") and V ("people who cultivate yelling as a strategy") describe the inner realities of individual people in the law firm.

II ("They are yelling at him because") asserts that what happens in the law firm is the result of people's inner realities. Although that is sometimes true, it's not the simplest explanation. The simplest explanation is that what happens in the law firm is the result of the law firm. Organizations have their own traditions and culture that stongly shape the behaviour of individuals. When there's some unusual behaviour in an organization, the organization itself is the first place to look for an explanation. That this involved a "bunch of junior partners and...bunch of senior partners" is also a clue that this is not primarily about individual psychology.

If junior partner had yelled at Tom in private, and on learning of it the other partners had rolled their eyes, shaken their heads, and had quiet words with junior partner, that would have suggested "an existence without meaning", but that would have been a different law firm, a different story. Your story suggests an organization that uses psychology to exert control, a tactic with which you collude, but which Tom, if he's a good lawyer, will sense and counter in terms of the organization itself.

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I'm that physician. And I ... (Below threshold)

June 26, 2008 10:49 AM | Posted by mdmdmd: | Reply

I'm that physician. And I don't want to be.

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I bet this article gets bet... (Below threshold)

June 27, 2008 12:19 AM | Posted by infopractical: | Reply

I bet this article gets better ratings from older professionals who have seen this than younger people who haven't yet.

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I remember in M. Scott Peck... (Below threshold)

June 27, 2008 8:36 AM | Posted by Walter F: | Reply

I remember in M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, Peck writing of his going to his supervisor during his psychiatric internship, saying that he had a problem: That due to his workload, it was literally impossible for him to give adequate care to all of his patients. His supervisor responded that yes, Peck had a problem. It wasn't the supervisor's problem, or the hospital's problem, or anyone else's. It was Peck's problem.

Aren't the professional standards in law and psychiatry roughly the same? So from where comes this "line in the sand"?

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mdmdmd- yes a thousand ... (Below threshold)

June 28, 2008 10:49 PM | Posted by alone: | Reply

mdmdmd- yes a thousand times yes

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espelho- a million times... (Below threshold)

June 28, 2008 10:56 PM | Posted by alone: | Reply

espelho- a million times yes. You got it. And mdmdmd felt it. I can go to bed now...

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There's always this sort of... (Below threshold)

June 30, 2008 6:44 AM | Posted by flawedplan: | Reply

There's always this sort of poignance underneath grandiosity, not many see it so clearly.

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The problem exists in nursi... (Below threshold)

July 4, 2008 1:26 PM | Posted by wetnurse: | Reply

The problem exists in nursing as well.

What then, is to be done?

Where is the line drawn if your supervisor is of a different discipline and lacks understanding of the nature of your duties?

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I was married to a narcissi... (Below threshold)

July 7, 2008 12:14 PM | Posted by Lola: | Reply

I was married to a narcissist and have a boss like this. I know these characters pretty well.

As the story states, the partners never checked his work.Let us move past the junior partner for a second. He just ends up being a pawn anyway.

Narcissist's are primarly lazy. They want the benes but don't want the responsibility. They are too busy figuring out how to make themselves more important and rich with as little effort as they have to. Internally they have such a fear of failing that they build a protective layer around them. Sometimes that layer consists of people. People to help them achieve their important status, people to take the fall when the narcissist boss ultimately screws up.

as I am sure you all know, narcissism and alchoholism are siamese twins.

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Believe me, this is the sta... (Below threshold)

January 17, 2009 7:46 PM | Posted by Datura Ferox: | Reply

Believe me, this is the standard of practice in "mission-oriented science" as well [AKA DOD engineering contractors, Big Pharma].

Cultures of blame are never cultures of learning; learning requires [a] work and [b] "the ability to serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to oneself".

Far easier to ignore the situation until there's a crisis, then scapegoat the underling.

To wetnurse: so far, the only thing I've found that remotely resembles a real solution, is, first, awareness; then, understanding; and after that, the willingess to speak truth - not to power, but to fear. Compassion comes at the end, because the truth has to precede it.

This, unfortunately, can take years, and American workers rarely have years anymore. And if, as Lola states, any of these characters is a Cluster B and wields significant power, then you can forget learning. It won't happen, ever.

Refusal to play the Game is the only other good option, and the reprisals for that are well noted above.

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You have described every le... (Below threshold)

January 8, 2015 10:21 AM | Posted by James: | Reply

You have described every leader I have met in the Army, including myself, regretfully.

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