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.