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Should I Take Insults From My Boss?

Last Updated Feb 20, 2009 1:00 PM EST

Dear Stanley,
My boss called me a knucklehead. Should I be insulted or just act like a moron whenever he asks me a question?

Maxwell Smart

Dear Max,

Neither, dude. You're demonstrating in your query that you are not, in fact, guilty as charged. You show humor. Humorous people are not knuckleheads, unless they are stooges. There is a long history of stooges being somewhat funny, depending on their age, but very few stooges have made it in business unless they graduated from the very best MBA academies. After that they generally seem to go into banking.

You, on the other hand, have been accused of being a knucklehead. Several things may be involved. First, the word was made extensively popular some years back by Bill Murray as a term of affection, as in, "That's all I have to say about that. Now get outta here, you knucklehead." This statement was usually accompanied by a rough noogie on the back of the head. Nothing bad was implied. So if that's the tone your boss is taking with you, you should thank your lucky stars. He's razzing you. That's a good thing. You don't tease people you're going to fire tomorrow.

If, however, you believe he is actually and legitimately accusing you of having knuckles in your cerebellum, you've got a little homework to do. Perhaps he or she has come to this conclusion because you screwed up hugely and flamboyantly in some way? If so, the old formula of one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration comes into play, along with a healthy measure of pure reliability. You've got to put your nose to the grindstone and just do your job day to day. I know. It's hard to prove you're not something. It's much easier to show what you are. So do that. Unless, of course, you're actually a knucklehead.

The real issue here is as old as the first cave person shaking his fist at the sky. You're mad at your boss. You want to let him know about it. You figure that a little ironic "out-stupiding" will show him just how clever and sharp you really are. Resist the temptation. Really. You may win a skirmish here and there, but you're not going to win the war, because once you've both dug into your positions, his goal will be to show you every day how truly you adhere to his definition of you. You'll make his authority over you depend on his proving, on an ongoing basis, how dense and incapable you really are. That's a no-win game for both of you, but particularly for you. Dump your resentment and emotion and play the game with a maximum of cool. Got that? Good. Now get out of here, you knucklehead.