ON THE SPOT

James Comey proves it’s basically impossible to give a perfect response to a bad boss

What’s the right way to respond if your boss makes an inappropriate—or even unethical—request? Former FBI director James Comey says he found himself facing just such a dilemma in February, when US president Donald Trump reportedly asked him to drop a federal investigation into the recently-fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“[Flynn] is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,” Trump said, according to a memo written by Comey shortly after the meeting. “I agree he is a good guy,” Comey said, opting not to address the implied request.

Some US senators seem to think Comey’s response was pretty weak. “You’re big. You’re strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you.'” Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked during Comey’s June 8 testimony.

But management experts say it’s no surprise that Comey floundered in the moment. When bad bosses take us by surprise, few people respond in the way they might hope.

 “It’s incredibly normal for people not to respond perfectly in the moment when they’re confronted with shocking behavior.” “It’s incredibly normal for people not to respond perfectly in the moment when they’re confronted with shocking behavior,” Alison Green, a management consultant and author of New York magazine’s popular column “Ask a Manager,” writes in an email. “Very few of us have a perfectly polished response on the spot when we first encounter something inappropriate or unethical. And one of the most common reactions is to say something to try to normalize the situation—and that is especially true when there are sticky power dynamics, as there are in this case. (As an example of this, look to all the women who deal with creeps at work by just trying to smooth over an inappropriate interaction—and later realize, whoa, that was clear-cut sexual harassment.)”

Indeed, Comey was clearly navigating uncharted territory. By his own admission, he’d never dealt with a president like Trump before. During his testimony, he noted that he felt compelled to take notes on their one-on-one meetings, a step he’d never taken with former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document,” he said. There’s also reason to think Trump was trying to make Comey fear for his job security. Before firing Comey, Trump reportedly assured him that lots of people “wanted the job.” Comey saw this as an attempt to create a “patronage relationship”—Comey could stay on as FBI director if he was loyal to Trump.

Such behavior will sound familiar to anyone who’s had a boss that perpetuates a culture of fear, according to Stefanie Johnson, an assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. And when people face harassment or intimidation at work, they don’t think as clearly.

“Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow (and many other theories) point to the fact that our brains have two mechanisms—a logical side that requires slow conscious, data-driven thought and an emotional one that results in fast, not always logical, responses,” Johnson writes in an email. “If someone is afraid of their leader (their leader might fire them, for example) then they’re likely to engage in this … emotional response.”

Basically, when we feel threatened, the logical parts of our brain shut down, according to Johnson. “The part of your brain in which you weigh the costs and benefits of making a decision (like standing up for what you think is right) is dismantled. Instead, you engage in fight-or-flight. Giving an answer like ‘He’s a good guy’ seems to be a flight response—he does not want to fight with Trump.”

Comey himself expressed regret about his initial response to Trump. “I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in,” he told Sen. Feinstein. “I remember saying, ‘I agree he is a good guy,’ as a way of saying, ‘I’m not agreeing with what you asked me to do.’ Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance…I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I’d do it better.”

Chances are Comey will do better if he encounters a similar scenario—simply because he’s now had practice dealing with a shocking request, and has devoted thought to what a suitable response might look like. But the truth is that it’s hard to prepare for unexpectedly alarming behavior at work. And so Johnson suggests that if you find yourself in a similarly sensitive moment, you ask for a moment to think.

“You need to remove yourself from the situation, collect yourself, maybe go out on the balcony and think about what you need to do,” she says. “So just say, ‘I really can’t respond to that right now, I need to put some thought into that,'” and leave the room.

Another option is to signal to your boss that you won’t keep the request a secret. “Say, “Ah, I think we should probably loop some other people in on this and see what they think,” Johnson suggests. If your boss is really making an inappropriate demand, this may help defuse the situation.

And if you don’t heroically shut down your boss or another overstepping coworker, there’s no reason to beat yourself up. “Comey did exactly what anyone should do upon coming out of a shocking encounter like that—he documented it and he reported it,” says Green. “But you’d have to be pretty oblivious to human behavior to criticize him for not taking the president to task in the shock of the moment.”

Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search