This is unfortunately a common pattern in workplaces, where we find someone constantly seems to be provoking us, but then we also get word of them sneaking around talking to others about what we said or did in response. What’s going on here? Is there a name of this pattern of behavior, and what can we do about it?
In general, whenever someone at work is provoking reactions in you and then sneaking around talking to others about these reactions, they are engaging in a classical smear campaign. They are using the reactions they have deliberately provoked to undermine your credibility and reputation in the eyes of your colleagues and management.
It’s a well worn and predictable method, unfortunately especially common with personality disordered individuals like psychopaths and narcissists. They’re constantly trying to manipulate the perception of others to turn them against a specific target or scapegoat. And this provocation smear campaign tactic is just one way they do it.
In this article we’ll try and de-mystify and label what’s going on to give comfort to (often annoyed and distressed) readers who may be going through this, as well as offer simple, concrete steps to take when dealing with provocative work colleagues.
Disclaimer – This article is just a starting point to provide readers struggling with this kind of situation some ideas, suggestions and options on possible ways to move forward. However, none of this information should be taken as gospel, since I don’t know your exact situation and every situation is different, so it’s important to always consult with trusted people, including friends, family, therapists and legal professionals, before deciding on what course of action to take in your particular circumstance.
Provocation As Part Of A Smear Campaign Explained
Provocation is quite common in toxic workplaces, when your boss or colleague seems to be constantly trying to stir up a reaction in you. Unfortunately, two faced-ness is also common, when someone might be nice to your face and then sneak around talking trash behind your back.
However, those two things often seem to combine together in workplaces, with someone provoking reactions in you, and THEN sneaking around talking to others about how you reacted. It’s like they’re using both tactics as a one-two punch.
We hope to put readers a little bit at ease here by saying this is a very common pattern in workplaces, and forms part of what’s classical called a workplace smear campaign. If this is happening to you, you’re not alone by any means. It is a toxic form of manipulation and slander, and the general pattern has been well documented in the Cluster B abuse recovery space (since this behavior is very common with psychopaths and narcissists).
Here’s how it generally goes, adapted from Jackson Mackenzie’s latest book on toxic abuse:
- A disordered individual (psychopath/sociopath/narcissist) provokes you.
- You deal with the issue calmly, thinking the conflict is resolved.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2, many, many times.
- Eventually, you react less calmly, sick of the provocations.
- The disordered individual victimizes themselves from your reaction: “Oh wow, you’re so crazy/sensitive/impatient/cranky/moody/difficult/awkward)!”
- They also go sneaking around to others in the workplace gossiping about your provoked reaction, trying to paint out to others (including middle and senior management) that you are “going crazy” or some other smear. They try to gradually erode your reputation among colleagues and management in the workplace.
Here’s a good summary quote on this:
“It’s called the smear campaign and it started even before your breakup or the blowup in a work situation…What they’re doing is provoking reactions from you and then sneaking around the sharing those reactions with people to slowly show this person is going “crazy”….
That smear campaign is about turning people against you, even your own friends, so you have no support after it’s done”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
The workplace smear campaign has several main goals:
- To undermine your credibility and reputation in the eyes of work colleagues and also management.
- To erode your individual self-esteem and self of competency and self-efficacy.
- To distract and divert attention away from the real trouble-makers (by using the target as a scapegoat).
- To drive out genuine high quality, conscientious, high performing workers who toxic manipulators see as a threat.
- Toxic personality types often engage in this behavior just for the fun of it, or to relieve a constant sense of boredom they have.
Provocation Is Common With Cluster B Disorders
It needs to be said that if you’re dealing with someone who is relentlessly provocative, then it’s important to consider the possibility of so called Cluster B personality disorders – most commonly anti-social personality disorder (psychopathy/sociopathy) and narcissistic personality disorder (NDP).
These personality types are characterized not just by an occasional instance of dishonesty or trash-talking, but by a pervasive and deeply ingrained set of pathological personality traits they always manifest in some way on daily basis.
Here are key traits for each personality disorder:
ASPD (Psychopathy/sociopathy) – Provocative, reaction seeking, manipulative, deceitful, power-fixated, glib, insincere, callous, lacking empathy or remorse, among others See the link above or our article for more on each of these traits.
NPD (narcissism) – Most of the above traits, plus exploitativeness, entitlement, grandiosity, a sense of “specialness” or “uniqueness”, haughtyness, arrogance, pomposity, self importance, among others. See the link above for more on these traits, plus our article on the stereotype of the workaholic narcissist.
Psychopaths especially from all over the world, even ones who have never met or spoken to each other, seem to engage in this same pattern of behavior in workplaces – provoke, then sneak around gossiping. It seems to be a go-to pattern of behavior for personality disordered people who are instinctually manipulative and always looking about how they can cause harm to others in any setting.
But the provocation part of especially common, and built into the sick, inverted mindset of these disorders.
Personality disorder expert Richard Grannon sums up the general mindset of these disorders very well:
“Custer B is the .. definition of reaction seeking or dramatic personality disorders. This is not ‘I want to go away and sit on my own in my room’, this is ‘I need to annoy you to live. I need to hurt you to feel OK. I need to cause chaos and drama wherever I go just to feel basically alright’”.
In other words, these people need to feed off the (usually negative) emotional reactions of others in other to inflate themselves psychologically. Provocation is one of the ways they do this.
This may not be true in every case of workplace provocation. But certainly in a good number of cases, if this type of provocative, reaction seeking behavior seems to be pervasive and relentless in the person(s) doing it, plus they have a clustering of other toxic personality traits, you’re dealing with someone who has a full blown personality disorder.
It’s such a pervasive pattern among these disorders. That’s why I was able to create this article – because there’s accounts on forums all over the place of the same pattern – they provoke the reaction, then sneak around using this as fuel to smear the target. It appears it’s a well worn tactic with these people.
How To Respond When Provoked At Work
This really boils down to two very simple general points – staying calm in the face of provocation, and documenting all inappropriate behavior from the people involved.
Let’s look at each point in turn, and then some supplementary ones:
1. Keeping Calm – Key foundational point – keep calm in the face of provocation, and you win. They don’t get the fuel they need for their smear campaigns. This is easier said than done, because our ego often badly wants to respond and put these troublemakers in their place. But once you realize that provocative personality types feed off your emotional response, it’s easier to learn to be more strategic and “play the long game”. Keep calm, and document, which we cover next.
One of the biggest things you can do for yourself if you are dealing with someone like this is to always remain calm when dealing with them because what you’ll find with psychopaths and narcissists especially is that they’re trying to provoke you.
They’re trying to provoke reactions so that you look crazy and hysterical and they can then sit back and play victim and say ‘oh look what this person did to me and how crazy they’re acting’.
If you remain calm completely with them, you gain that upper hand. They’re trying to put you on the defensive. They’re trying to make you feel like you’re under attack. So if they say the perfect thing that has you thinking ‘oh my god, I have to respond to that because I have the perfect response, you should know that was intentionally planned”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here.
2. Documentation – HR departments can only deal with documented evidence of wrong-doing, so it’s important to thoroughly document all instances of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior from the person provoking you. Workplace psychopaths especially will always be acting inappropriately, so you’ll have plenty of evidence. But get it all down in documented form, as and when it happens, with as much detail as possible.
- All instances of provocative, reaction seeking behavior from the person in question.
- Any evidence of more direct and overt bullying or intimidation from this person (gas-lighting, undermining, abusive, disrespectful or otherwise toxic behavior directly towards you).
- What they’ve said about you, to whom, and when.
- Who has relayed this information to you about your boss/colleague’s behavior, if applicable, and when. What was said in those conversations.
- Conversations you’ve overheard or walked in on whilst your boss was talking negatively about you to others. When/where they happened and who was present.
- Emails or texts you’ve seen if applicable (get screenshots if you can).
- Any relevant conversations you’ve had with your boss (when, where, what was said), especially if it demonstrates evidence of duplicity (two-facedness), deceit, lying by omission and other unprofessional behavior.
- When and where any of these events/conversations took place, and with whom.
Consult with a legal professional if you’re unsure of how to go about documentation (see below).
3. Take action – Another key point here is to do SOMETHING, even if it’s to leave. One thing NOT to do in this situation is passively is back, stop fighting or “give up” and just let the smear campaign escalate against you even further. Avoid falling into toxic passivity, where you give your power away, externalize your locus of control and somehow hope for external circumstances to change for you. This is a recipe for disaster, because in almost all cases, it won’t and your reputation, credibility and self esteem will continue to be eroded. Take your own control and power back and move on to better things if this is what is needed.
4. Consult a legal professional – Every situation is different, which is why even this article can only be take as a rough guide and not gospel. It is vitally important to consult with a legal professional in your jurisdiction who specializes in employment law and matters. Do not be intimidated by this, since many of them will often free initial consultations, which in many cases should be plenty enough to get a strategy down for correctly documenting events (here’s a generic search page online to get you started).
Assessing The Culture Of The Company When Deciding What To Do
This is an important point that’s left out of a lot of content on this. There often seems to be the embedded assumptions that workplaces are always fair, work cultures are always supportive and understanding, and that if you raise a valid grievance about the behavior of others, it will always be fairly listened to and dealt with.
Sadly, none of these assumptions can be taken for granted, especially in the Western world (especially the UK and US). Workplace cultures and management styles have been growing ever more toxic in all sectors (including low level retail jobs). And the blunt truth is that good people do get gas-lit, pathologized and unfairly treated in workplaces, to the point where they have to leave. Workplace manipulators are often successful in their smear campaigns.
This is why it is strongly recommended to carefully evaluate the culture of the company you’re in before deciding how to respond to smear campaigns being conducted against you. Some battles are not worth fighting, even if you would be totally morally justified in raising a grievance against this person. And even people who do fight legal battles against employers sometimes come out the other end not even considering it worth it, since they’ve been so shredded psychologically and drained financially by the entire process.
Let’s give two broad examples to demonstrate this point. Here’s two company cultures, one mostly good, one toxic, to compare:
Scenario #1 – If the company culture is generally good – If your provocative boss seems to be more of an isolated “bad egg” in a company that seems otherwise quite good, then it’s absolutely worth escalating complaints to management levels above your boss, or to HR. Documentation becomes even more critical then, but here’s some things to consider here:
- Is your relationship with other colleagues generally good, despite your boss’s behavior?
- Is your relationship with other/higher management also good?
- Is it a job you enjoy, aside from your boss’s behavior?
- Is it job you’d still look forward to getting up and coming in for, if you had a boss that wasn’t so provocative and annoying?
- Do you sense (and better, have you already seen) that upper management are supportive with any grievances and concerns raised? Do they always look to support staff and find a fair solution when possible?
- Are there proper boundaries maintained between lower and mid/high level managers? Do you see good integrity with management, and a lack of ability to manipulate them?
If you’re ticking these boxes, then it’s absolutely worth reporting their behavior and seeking a transfer to a new line manager if this will improve your experience in the company.
Scenario #2 – If the company culture is toxic – The more troublesome case is when you see this kind of provocative, reaction seeking behavior more commonly in the company. To the point where even if you got a transfer to a new shop/department, you might encounter the same toxic behavior from your new boss/colleagues as well.
Here are some red flags to watch out for here in companies:
- A high concentration of pathological personalities, all of which engage in provocative and reaction seeking behavior.
- A sense of “clique-ness”, where these toxic people often band together, join in bullying and smear campaigns and watch each other’s backs
- Unsympathetic and unsupportive management, who will often seek to blame and gas-light the worker if they raise any concerns.
- Signs of upper management even knowing that your boss is provocative and otherwise toxic, but tolerating and allowing them to fester, because they consider them to be “good for business” (HUGE red flag here).
- Signs of lower level managers manipulating and controlling mid and higher level managers, “having them in their back pocket“. An unprofessional sense of undue influence on management by certain people, that can lead to them siding with abusers rather than their victims in the case of confrontations and blowups.
- A poor quality of staff in general – not the highest integrity or honesty in the workforce. Lots of backstabbing and infighting. Difficult to trust people.
- A lack of joy or interest in the job anyway, or perhaps what enjoyment you did have has been eroded by working with and under toxic people.
Unfortunately, when this kind of “provoke then sneak around talking trash” behavior is going on in a company, and tolerated, it’s the latter type of culture that’s going to be prevalent.
In these cases, it’s often better to NOT waste your time and energy fighting a toxic culture, and instead look to move on to somewhere better. The processes that people are made to go through to get a hearing in these types of workplaces is often so draining and traumatic that it may be a better use of time and energy to simply move on to a better company with better quality people in it.