The Big Wink

Long ago, a boss of mine exhibited a great deal of classically toxic boss behavior on the job. While the conventional assumption in the office held they were blind to the effects of their actions, one incident proved otherwise.

By the time of this situation, I had been subjected to a few of this boss’s tirades, either singly or collectively. For example, they once hurled a magazine we’d produced in my general direction to express their displeasure with the cover subject. Another time, they insisted I watch on their laptop, along with them, the scene in Saving Private Ryan where the German soldier slowly, almost lovingly, stabs the American soldier with his knife, to somehow illustrate the kill-or-be-killed nature of the media business.

My inclination for detente meant I didn’t get the worst of it; in fact, I was often called in to broker a compromise (or at least an armistice) between the boss and other staff. I should add, though, that this was the first job where I’d dealt with a boss this aggressive, and in retrospect, I caved embarrassingly to their whims on more occasions than I care to remember. Accommodation versus capitulation is the thorny path walked by all middle managers, and each has its price.

Anyway, this boss called me and the creative director in for an unscheduled meeting, whereupon they went from placid to screaming in less than one second. This was a major tirade, and while both myself and the creative director were caught off-guard, it was immediately clear that the creative director was the focus of the boss’s ire. The boss yelled at him directly and repeatedly about some major oversight or bad judgement call (I’ve no recollection at this point what the deal was). The creative director stammered explanations and reasons and defenses, often interrupted or shouted down by the boss who clearly wasn’t planning to listen. Flustered and offended, the creative director hunched forward, staring at the floor, and spread his hands to gather his wits for a response, and that’s when it happened.

The boss inhaled sharply, winding up for another round of verbal abuse, and while the creative director looked away in anticipation, the boss flicked their eyes at me, grinned, and winked. Then their face crumpled back into fury and they went back to screaming.

The whole thing was a performance, and after it was over the creative director skulked out without a word. I followed, neither me nor the boss acknowledging the wink, then or ever. I was amazed. So was everything an act with this boss? It’s one thing to be a congenital asshole, but to put that on, as a character? The boss had somehow internalized despotic rage as a management technique. I knew they practiced assiduously before other kinds of meetings, like when pitching proposals or reporting to investors. Did they rehearse their tantrums as well? Or did that come more naturally?

I never really grasped what the boss meant by that wink, by including me in the artificial nature of the reprimanding. I guess violating the fourth wall was a gesture of managerial esprit de corps. This is how it’s done, they winked, when you need to rattle the cages. Was it better or worse that the anger was fake? I wasn’t sure about that either, but I didn’t like being implicitly complicit in the charade, now that I knew. But I did notice the boss never again got that angry with me, since I’d been afforded a wink behind the curtain, as it were. I don’t think I’ve encountered any other bosses who so overtly practiced emotional manipulation at that level. But then again, if I did, and they were good at it, I’d never know.