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Dealing with the Never Wrong authority figure: part 2

Updated on October 1, 2015

In part one, I discussed the two main types of Never Wrongs and why they're dangerous. Now let's look at what we can do about them.

Neville Chamberlain infamously appeased Hitler, with disastrous results. In his defense, it's been pointed out that England's military position was extremely weak.
Neville Chamberlain infamously appeased Hitler, with disastrous results. In his defense, it's been pointed out that England's military position was extremely weak. | Source

First: What not to do

Before going into what to do, let's look at things to avoid.

1. Don't rely on reason. You'll notice pretty quickly that it's just not working. Resist the temptation to patiently explain things to him. It will just make him more hostile. Any suggestion that he might not have thought everything through or that someone knows more than him is an assault on his ego.

2. Don't try humility or appeasement. The Excuse Maker may seize on this and go into full Invalidator mode. He'll twist anything you say into an admission that it was your fault. Don't offer yourself as the excuse he's looking for. And the Invalidator will see your humility as a sign of weakness and exploit it ruthlessly. (Does this mean you risk becoming like him yourself? More on that below.)

3. Don't cover for him, ever. He has no gratitude, because he can't admit to himself that he ever owed you anything. And when things go wrong, you'll get stuck with the blame. What's more, if you cover for him, you're enabling him. You've become part of the problem.

4. Don't become like him - please. The world does not need any more Never Wrongs.


The broken feedback loop

The problem with all these things is it presumes there is some sanity or rationality in the Never Wrong's personality that you can latch on to and leverage. This is not realistic. The core of the Never Wrong's personality is denial. He's all about avoiding the reality about himself.

A healthy personality learns from experience and incorporates facts and logic. He lets the consequences of his actions mold his thinking, and thus his future actions. This feedback loop relies on the humility to admit that his current way of thinking and acting may be less than perfect. The Never Wrong does not do this. The feedback loop is broken. He is unwilling to learn. He will not face the truth about himself, so you need to face the truth about him.

The Never Wrong cannot learn from his own mistakes, because he cann't admit to himself that his own mistakes exist. He cannot learn from others, because he cannot admit to himself that others know something he doesn't. He cannot learn. Don't try to educate him. He won't take it well.

James F Welles has defined stupidity as the learned inability to learn. The Never Wrong has learned to avoid the emotional pain of learning that he is wrong. It's harder to unlearn something than it is to learn it. If you want him to unlearn his refusal to learn, a direct assault on his ego won't help at all.


Mark "Deep Throat" Felt informed on Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate to the press. Whether he was a hero or a traitor depends on your point of view.
Mark "Deep Throat" Felt informed on Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate to the press. Whether he was a hero or a traitor depends on your point of view. | Source

What to do instead

Now we know what not to do. What should we be doing instead?

You need leverage. Think of some person or group that has the potential to remove the Never Wrong from power, or at least pressure him to change. Why haven't they done something already? Maybe they don't know. Maybe they don't have the evidence they need to act. Or maybe they don't care. I recommend you not go to his superiors except as a last resort. A corporate culture filters down from the top. Your Never Wrong boss's boss is probably either a true believer or a Never Wrong himself, or both. But there are regulatory agencies. There are clients. There are business-to-business relationships. There are shareholders. Within the organization, there may be rivals. The enemy of your enemy is useful. Be aware of the politics - the stakeholders and the players. Be aware of the psychology - who the true believers are and who hasn't drunk the Kool-Aid of the Never Wrong's charisma.

There is a danger that you'll give potential allies information that it's not lawful to give them. Know the laws, especially as regards whistleblowers. Consider bringing a lawyer in. But within the laws, do anything and everything. Consider doing BCC (blind carbon copy) on emails.

Keep detailed records. You don't want it to be his word against yours. Document everything. Get things in writing when you can. See to it that when the blame gets assigned, it will stick where it belongs - not on you. Don't let him know you're doing this, or he may retaliate.

Try boxing him in. Close off his options to shift blame or cover up. Record keeping will help here. Be vigilant for the ways he tries to dodge blame. Be aware of his maneuvers to manipulate you into being the fall guy. Do the opposite of covering for him.

If he gives you lots of rules and regulations, follow them - especially when they're harmful. Document that you followed them. Make sure everyone knows you're just following the boss's rules. If anyone says to you "this is stupid!" just say "it's not my idea; it's the boss' orders." When things go wrong, document exactly how following his rules led to the disaster. Then he can't criticize you without criticizing himself at the same time. He'll try to have it both ways. He'll try to put you in a double bind, where you're to blame either for not following the rules or for the consequences of following the rules. Don't let him. The way out of the double bind is documentation. Make sure your potential allies are in the loop as it happens.

Am I advocating deliberately doing a bad job? You can define doing a good job two ways: by following orders, or by getting good results. Anything that keeps the Never Wrong in power leads to terrible results down the road. Better a small disaster or two now than countless disasters later.

This is the law of the jungle: blame or be blamed. Outmaneuver him. Is this stooping to his level? Consider this: He is depending on delusion, and you are depending on truth. There's no moral equivalence there.


In Dante's Inferno, sycophants suffered in the afterlife. In this life, it's the ones who don't toady who are put through hell.
In Dante's Inferno, sycophants suffered in the afterlife. In this life, it's the ones who don't toady who are put through hell. | Source

A word about toadying

In a toxic work environment, those who get the boss to like them get ahead. There's plenty of advice out there telling you to manipulate your boss into liking you, by flattery and feigned affinity. It works. Toadying is the flip side of charisma, and like charisma it exploits human weakness very effectively. But there are problems with it.

1. It's cynical, dishonest and demeaning. Toadying is despised because it's despicable.

2. It requires a certain talent to do well. You have be a good dissembler - an actor who never breaks character. Do it badly and you'll get nothing but the contempt of your peers.

3. It doesn't solve the big problem - that an incompetent is in power. What good does it do in the long run to rise in a doomed heirarchy?

But let's get real. If you don't brown-nose, you won't survive under a Never Wrong. So, how to survive and still have some self respect?

What works for me is splitting the difference. I call it Toadying Lite. In my interactions with people in positions of influence, I hide my contempt, while emphasizing the few feelings I have toward them that aren't negative. This is just close enough to honesty that I can do it convincingly, and just far enough from honesty that it will work with someone who is allergic to the truth.

And what of the big problem? I just try to manage it, not solve it. By getting the boss to feel a little affinity toward me, I stall his revenge. I buy time to find another boss or client. "A soft answer turneth away wrath" - and that's something, even if it's useless for anything else. So much for my interests. What about everyone else affected? This doesn't help them much. But it's not necessarily incompatible with the other strategies I've described above. Anything that buys you time may give you room to maneuver.

After you've jumped ship - or if you're lucky enough to topple him - your Never Wrong may feel betrayed. Just remind him of all the people he's punished for being open and honest with him.


Direct pressure?

What about more direct pressure, via insinuated threats? Suppose you drop names of those who can do him harm, or allude to laws you can use against him? This can work, but it is very risky. I once subtly intimidated an Invalidator and got him to back down. This is, however, very dangerous. A cornered animal is a desperate animal.

In Tne Art of War, Sun Tzu warns against putting an enemy on "death ground," where he has no escape and no choice but to fight desperately. You want to pressure him to leave his psychological position, not defend it to the death. perception is everything here. He has to perceive that what you want him to do is a viable option for him. If he perceives otherwise, you've got big trouble,

The best situation is when you can herd him into a trap. Make him uncomfortable where he is, and make him see an escape that isn't actually an escape. An accetpable situation is where he can escape, but at the cost of becoming less toxic or of losing most of his power. The worst situation is where he sees no escape, and must destroy you to survive. If you bungle the psychology, you'll end with the worst sitation instead of the best.


When you're the one who screwed up

The Never Wrong applies a double standard. His mistakes are to be ignored; yours are not. If he's an Invalidator, your mistakes are to be harped on and used mercilessly against you. There is no grace, no allowance for human fallibility.

Never simply admit a mistake to an Invalidator, especially not out of a sense of fairness, or even as an appeasement strategy. He's not interested in fairness or appeasement; he only cares about getting you. But this creates a dilemma for any decent person: how not to admit you're wrong without becoming a Never Wrong yourself?

First, never deny you're wrong or that you've made a mistake when it's actually the case. Stick to this rule, and no matter what else you do you won't be a Never Wrong. But what do you do instead?

Try saying nothing. Pretend you didn't even hear. If this works, great. There's a good chance it won't, however. The next step takes some planning. If he points out your error before you're ready to counter, stall for time with "let me look into that."

When you're ready, admit the error in such a way that it implies a criticism of him. This puts him in a double bind. He can't accept your admission without admitting his own error, and he's flat out not going to do that. Most likely he'll drop the subject. You have to think through your response. Do this clumsily and it will become a tit-for-tat. Nothing good will come of that.


Compassion and the big picture

In Nasty People, Jay Carter advocates first trying friendliness and affinity to bring out the good side in an Invalidator, on the theory that they're insecure and lonely, and need a friend. However, he acknowledges that some Invalidators have no good side. He calls these the one-percenters. From my experience, they're more than one percent. I had one nasty boss who seemed to have a human side, and I do wish I'd been better at connecting with him. But I've known several Invalidators who made me regret trying to be friendly with them. On the whole, it seems a risky strategy. Perhaps with Excuse Makers it would be a good idea, but Invalidators are out to get you and you'd better not forget it. Besides, this seems to me nothing more than toadying with a dollop of condescending pity.

Even more risky is cutting a truly nasty Invalidator any slack at all. They are not capable of reciprocating decency, because they're not capable of understanding decency as anything more than a show of weakness. I say: never show mercy until the enemy is thoroughly defeated.

In The Caine Mutiny, Queeg takes the stand in a court martial to bury his victims. The defense lawyer turns the tables, and Queeg himself is destroyed. In the film version, Bogart actually makes us pity the defeated Invalidator. Afterwards, the remorseful defense attorney tells the junior officers that they should have offered Queeg more emotional support early on. I have to disagree. It wouldn't have made a difference, at least not for the better.

Queeg is very true to life in this sense: there is a side to him that's not actually inhuman, but there's no side to him that isn't unfit for command. Even horrible people are human beings, and they have feelings of a sort. That doesn't change the fact that they are dangerous and need to be defeated. They're lonely for good reason. They have no true friends because they're incapable of true friendship. Let's not take sentimentality for compassion.

But what about after he's thoroughly and irrevocably defeated? I see no harm in being decent to an enemy once he's rendered harmless, and there's no call to be petty in victory. It may even redeem him, if there's a good side to him. Call this the Marshall Plan theory of magnanimity towards enemies. Perhaps after he's hit bottom, he'll be willing to reconsider his ways. Be prepared to respond graciously if he tries to change. It's certainly more humane than gloating over his downfall. No one likes a sore winner.

Make it your goal to be in a position to show kindness to your defeated enemy.


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