Managing Passive-Aggressive Bosses

A passive-aggressive boss is a bit of a sticky situation for employees to navigate, as the undesirable behavior is demonstrated by someone who should really know better. The difficulty in addressing the issue lies in that this person is the one who directly influences your evaluations, pay raises and pathways for promotions or cross-training.

Imagine looking to a stone-faced supervisor who doesn’t provide any feedback, or someone who pretends to agree with you face-to-face and then cuts you down in front of others. What about when you discover that your staff suprevisor is working against you, behind your back? Then there is the manager that only gives you piecemeal information and guards how to do certain tasks as if they were top secret. These bosses feel like they have better control and increased job security if only they know how to order supplies or do payroll or budgets. How happy or engaged would you feel in this type of environment?

passive aggressive bossSo what to do? Look for another position elsewhere? Much easier said than done, especially these days. With the scarcity of positions, the downsizing of staff members and even the closings of hospitals and private sleep centers in this tough economy, the choice of leaving the situation isn’t that promising.

Thankfully over my 20-plus-year career, I’ve only had to contend with a few of these types of supervisors and bosses. Looking back, I remember not only how unpleasant the circumstances were, but how unproductive they were, as well. We really weren’t on the same team with the same goals. During those periods of time, I often felt as if I were up against the school yard bully; to handle the situation, I had to be smarter than they were during our interactions.

Now that may sound somewhat conceited on my part, but I assure you, it is not. I was (and still am) a very hard-working, “go to” type person, which can sometimes be intimidating to someone in an authority role. A boss may feel threatened by my abilities or my relationships with others both inside and outside the department, if he’s insecure about his.

Effectiveness Coach Laura Rose says, “The catalyst for both a “passive-aggressive” boss and a “bully” boss is insecurity. If you effectively communicate your intentions toward a Win/Win/Win solution (keeping the shared goals in focus) and keep your integrity toward a team solution, someone else’s insecurities will have a minimum impact on your individual principles, values and performance.”

These types of bosses handle communication poorly and usually in very indirect ways. So if I was given an assignment, I would try to ensure I had a witness to the interaction. Not always easy, but it is one way to validate what’s being said to your face; and if the story changes later others will know you are not the culprit. If it’s possible to get written instructions or directions, even better. This one particular supervisor would “forget to assign someone to relieve you at the end of your shift.” After this pattern become clear, my methodology was to call from my location about fifteen minutes before it was time for lunch or to go home. I used to call and say “I know how busy you are, so I was just calling to remind you that I need to go to lunch/home.” Relief wasn’t always on time with those calls, but it got better. He knew I was on to him and I wasn’t playing the game.

Another way to make the best of a tough situation is ask to assist on a special project using the advice above about it being a win-win. During a construction renovation, I had asked to be involved in the planning of the new rooms so we could maximize the workflow for our team. I made this request in front of my coworkers during a meeting. This kind of request is hard for the boss to turn down, since it was a genuine offer of assistance. Working on the front lines, I really had a good understanding of the workflow, whereas he had not been on the floor for many years. Getting involved in special projects exposes you to other decision-makers in your department and your organization. Luckily, things did get better in my relationship with this manager, because he realized that I was working toward the best interests of our department.

However that is not always the case for everyone. Kathi Elster, executive coach and co-author of Working with You Is Killing Me and Working for You Isn’t Working for Me aptly states, “A passive-aggressive boss will never change completely, but once he or she realizes that you are on to this behavior, it can get under control for a while, but it’s best to move on if you can.”

So the answer to dealing with your passive-aggressive boss essentially comes down to you–what you are willing to do to change the relationship and the way you focus your energy on seeing a change in your environment? Alternatively, you can spend your energy looking for internal or external job opportunities. The solution isn’t easy and shouldn’t be taken in haste. Regardless of the path you take, strategy plays a big role in maneuvering through your manager’s passive-aggressive behaviors at work.

Kathleen R. Kennedy, MS, RT(R)(QM), is senior director of imaging and physician support services, Mercy Medical Center, Rockville Centre, N.Y.

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