when giving good news, my boss first pretends to be upset as a “joke” — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

Recently, I was called into an “emergency” meeting with my grandboss, supposedly to discuss budget problems on a program I am leading. This worried me, because I hadn’t thought there were any budget problems, and I hardly ever talk to her (and, wouldn’t expect to, unless something was Very Wrong). When I got there, both my boss and his boss grilled me about the project for a minute or so, before telling me they had lied — we weren’t there to discuss the project at all and in fact they were giving me an award for my performance on it!

A few months ago I got promoted, and a similar thing happened. My annual review was unusually very tense. I was grilled on my goals and projects in a stern way that seemed a bit out of place, and was asked things like “why haven’t you started this yet?” And “how much did you REALLY contribute to that?”… And was surprised with “I’m promoting you!” At the end of the 30-minute meeting. My boss later told me he had been trying to worry me as a joke.

My bosses found both of these things hilarious. And I feel like I should too. But I hate it! I have anxiety issues that I struggle with, and although I think I’m good at masking that, and seeming calm on the surface, I have a hard time calming down after stuff like this. In the annual review, I was so worried about the tone of the conversation that my stomach was in knots, and I didn’t ask questions like I normally would. In both instances I feel like I didn’t get to enjoy the moment because I was recovering from worry.

I guess this is a small thing, and I should probably feel grateful I have bosses that recognize my work and have a sense of humor. But, these tiny pranks bothered me so much that I was wondering if it was worth saying something (like “please don’t do that again if you care about my mental health! I don’t like it!) Or should I let it go?


Your boss and his boss are asses who don’t understand power and the bounds of exercising it. Nor do they understand humans.

I’m sure there’s someone out there who would have genuinely enjoyed being the target of these “pranks” and would have enjoyed a jovial, unfeigned laugh at the end of them. That doesn’t change the fact that most people wouldn’t, and that making someone feel anxious and fearful isn’t a funny joke.

When “relief” is the best case outcome of a joke targeting someone whose paycheck you have authority over, your joke sucks.

And the authority piece of this is really crucial. When you have authority over people, you need to exercise it in a way that’s respectful of the people living within that control and indicates you’re sensitive to the potential for abuse inherent in that power. A boss who think it’s funny to trick you based on his power to levy serious, life-changing consequences on you isn’t a boss you can trust.

You’d be right to feel rattled and alienated by this even if you didn’t struggle with anxiety. Many people would! Your anxiety makes this even more upsetting, of course, but please know it’s understandable to take issue with this regardless.

So yes, do say something to your boss. I’d word it this way: “A couple of times now, you’ve made it seem like you’ve had serious concerns about my work before giving me an award or promotion. I wanted to ask if you’d please not do that again. Both times, my stomach was in knots and I was extremely worried. It wasn’t fun for me and I’d rather not go through that again. I also want to be able to take you seriously if there ever are serious issues with my work and not need to wonder if it’s real or not.”

If your boss is a mostly decent person who just didn’t think this through, he’ll respect this. (There are mean-spirited jerks out there who wouldn’t, but the type of manager to ignore this sort of direct request is pretty rare.)

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