This is unfortunately a common problem in workplaces – your boss seems to continually be trying to provoke, goad and annoy you. This can be really frustrating when you have to be in contact with this person on a daily basis, and they are constantly trying to push your buttons and wind you up. Why are they doing this and what can we do about it?
When your boss is repeatedly trying to provoke you, it is often a sign that they themselves have a personality disorder that means they must feed off the reactions of others to inflate their own mood and to provide the fuel for smear campaigns against that person. For this reason it is very important to always remain calm in the face of all instances of provocation by your boss.
Even if your boss doesn’t have a personality disorder, at the very least, excessive provocation is toxic behavior that ideally should be fully documented and reported to upper management if they are supportive. Emotionally mature, stable people do not seek to constantly provoke and annoy the people around them, so if this is happening, then it is a problem and should not be brushed off or ignored.
Let’s look at workplace provocation in more detail – some common ways in which your boss might be provoking you, plus some wider context of why this often happens, and some tips for dealing with it.
Common Forms of Workplace Provocation
This list is not exhaustive, but here are some common ways workplace bosses can try to annoy or provoke you:
- Outright raising of their voice and shouting at you (most workplace troublemakers are sneakier than this now though).
- Constantly interrupting and cutting you off in conversation.
- Hypocrisy and double standards – pulling you up for something they don’t even do themselves.
- Projection – accusing you of things which are actually attributable to them (lazy, argumentative, difficult etc), or accusing you of doing things they are actually doing (stealing, breaking rules etc).
- Undermining – constantly opposing you either verbally or procedurally, challenging or opposing or cutting you down in front of colleagues or customers.
- Smear campaigns – engaging in either open, blatant slandering of you, or more sneakily through feeding off your reactions and sneaking round to others (see section below).
- Calling or texting you on days off with silly nonsense, or trying to start an argument, or doing so when you’ve told them not to.
- Petty and excessive applications of procedures and rules, and sometimes only selectively towards one or two targets.
- Excessive micromanaging and “nitpicking” – nothing is ever good enough. Constant negative evaluations of your work and fault-finding. Never praising and always criticizing.
- Gas-lighting, where they attempt to invalidate your reality by saying something was done/said when it wasn’t, or vice versa (documentation is critical for countering this one). Alternatively, relentlessly countering anything you say with “alternative facts” in a way that dismisses you undermines your self esteem and confidence in yourself is also gas-lighting.
- Disrespectful and dismissive meta-communcation (words behind the words). Trying to annoy, irritate and provoke you by their overt or subtle use of words and tone of voice.
Provocation is often designed to get you in a place where you lose control and risk your own reputation
Some of these are direct methods of provocation – trying to directly engage with you in conversation in a way that annoys you and generates a reaction. Others are more indirect, and designed to more subtly annoy you and erode your sense of autonomy and competence, and confidence in yourself through constant undermining or communication patterns.
However, all these tactics are designed to provoke a reaction in you to the point where you engage with them or do something in a way that’s rash, unconsidered and uncontrolled. They are trying to get you to act from a place of negative emotion rather than from calmness and composure
Consider The Possibility of Cluster B Disorders
If this provocation seems to be happening a lot, and following a similar pattern, then it may be that your boss has a personality disorder. More precisely, they may have one of the so called Cluster B personality disorders (psychopathy, narcissism, borderline), which are by their nature provocative and reaction seeking.
“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 feed off the emotional reactions of others. They get an emotional “kick” or “high” to see other people annoyed and distressed. Therefore you will find these people constantly provoking and goading others, especially in workplaces where they’ve managed to get into a managerial position.
Not every boss who engages in provocative behavior necessarily has a full blown personality disorder. But many will, especially if this behavior is pervasive and relentless, and they also have a clustering of other toxic and manipulative personality traits.
More specifically, for the so called Antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy/sociopathy), you are looking for traits such as glibness, manipulative-ness, deceitfulness, poor impulse control, constant boundary pushing/eroding behavior, lack of empathy/remorse/compassion, fixation on power and control over others, constant breaking of rules etc. See here for a full breakdown.
For the narcissistic personality disorder, you are looking for manipulativeness, but also for signs of entitlement, grandiosity, superiority, self importance, a sense of being “special” and “unique”, arrogance, haughtyness and so on. See here for a full breakdown.
If you are seeing these sorts and traits and personality types, then it’s a huge red flag in workplaces. These people are extremely toxic and bad to be around long term for your own self esteem and mental health (especially with sociopaths/psychopaths). They are relentlessly scheming, manipulative troublemakers, constantly lying, deceiving, causing conflict and division, engaging in smear campaigns and manipulating higher management for their own ends. They love to invert reality and smear, pathologize and drive out good people, while they walk off scot-free because they’re so good at manipulating others.
Therefore it’s best to get away from these people as soon as possible. Whether that’s another department/shop in the same company, or a different company altogether, depends on the general culture that exists there. See the section further below where we cover this.
Provocation as a Precursor to Smear Campaigns
Another crucial peace of the puzzle when dealing with personality disordered provocative people, is that provocation is usually NOT only an end in itself, but is a precursor to a smear campaign they’ll often engage in, where they’ll seek to damage your reputation in the eyes of colleagues and management, using your reactions which they’ve deliberately provoked.
This is especially so if your reputation is generally good to begin with, and/or theirs is bad, and they are known to be a troublemaker. They have to create the image of having a justifiable reason for their smearing of you.
They do this by deliberately provoking reactions in the target, which they then use against them as fuel for the smear campaign.
Here is a very common sequence through which this plays out, 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
This is why it’s even more important to be on the lookout for provocative managers and colleagues, because they’re often playing a bigger game than just trying to annoy you. They want to negatively influence how you’re seen in the eyes of others, which is why handling this properly is so crucial.
“Psychopaths smear their accuser/target.
If that’s you, they ruin your credibility, often starting the smear campaign long before you even realize what they’ve done to you. When everything blows up, you have no support.”
Remain Calm In All Instances of Provocation
Given what we’ve covered so far, the first and most important piece of advice by far for dealing with your boss’s attempts to provoke and annoy you is to stay calm at all times in the face of all provocation.
Here’s a great quote on this from abusive dynamics expert Jackson Mackenzie:
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.
Once you realize the motivation for the provocation, then it becomes it easier to strategically see why it’s more important to remain calm. They want and need you to react to drum up their smear campaign against you. Don’t react and stay calm and you win.
I’ll be the first to admit this is easier said than done. When they’re provoking us, our ego really badly wants us to engage back, but if you can in any way manage to sublimate that desire, and instead NOT engage, that is what will really gain you the upper hand if your boss is provoking you.
Other Tips For Handling Your Boss Provoking You
Staying calm is the most important thing you can do in the face of provocation, but here’s some other important things to do in workplaces:
When dealing with any kind of toxic workplace dynamics, documentation is critical. HR and higher management can only work with documentation, not hearsay and one person’s word against another.
This is why must thoroughly document all instances of provocative behavior from your boss; this includes:
- Screenshots of texts and emails (especially important when gas-lighting is happening)
- Accounts of conversations where they are provoking you.
- All accounts of micromanagement and unfair criticism and fault finding, that can be contradicted by clear facts and evidence.
- Evidence of selective targeting of you, where they are engaging in this behavior only with you and not with others. Workplace bullies scan for vulnerable targets and attack only them and not people with stronger boundaries who won’t put up with their nonsense.
- All examples of deception and lying (both overt lying and lying by omission – a sneaky tactic you must watch out carefully for with manipulative bosses)
- All examples of severe breaking of rules and them acting like a law unto themselves.
- Any other examples of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior from that boss or line manager (even if not directed at you). This can include shouting, loud arguments in front of staff/customers, interrupting, attempting to humiliate and embarrass staff in front of others etc.
Consult a legal profession that specializes in workplace matters in your jurisdiction for more advice on this if you feel you need it – many will offer free initial consultations. But documentation is critical.
2. Withdraw If Necessary (Don’t Engage)
If you find these really toxic patterns like gas-lighting and provocation escalating when dealing with your boss, then you don’t need to continue the conversation with them, regardless of their administrative position over you. You can choose to dis-engage.
A good framework here is Dr Ramani Durvasula’s DEEP Framework; see here for a video:
Don’t Defend, Engage, Explain or Personalize. A great way to avoid being provoked and drawn into toxic interactions.
Try to keep up a good lifestyle that as best you can counteracts and balances your boss’s provocative behavior. Keep up good things that promote calm and peacefulness like exercise, meditation, good sleep, good diet, fun social time, avoid alcohol and drugs, and so on.
However, don’t keep tolerating a boss when their behavior just keeps getting worse and worse – see next point.
4. Assess The Culture Of The Company
Documentation is all well and good and recommended when your boss is trying to provoke you, but what you can and should do with this information depends on what type of company you are in.
It’s really important to make a realistic assessment of the company culture, to determine whether it’s even worth escalating any grievances you have, or whether your time and energy would be better spend moving on.
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 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.
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. There are jobs and workplaces that DON’T have provocative and annoying bosses, so seek to work for a company with a better culture and better quality people.