Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Recognizing passive-aggressive behavior in workplace leaders

From time to time, I've decided I will present some excerpts from my book on passive-aggressive bosses in my blog posts. As I've mentioned previously, I've gotten a fair amount of feedback and comments on my book, which tells me that the problem of passive-aggressive bosses in the workplace is a fairly widespread problem. So why not share some of my views with you, and hopefully you will share yours with me and with others. The problem needs to be 'aired' in the workplace and talked about. My new question is the following: is this a managerial survival mechanism? Has the modern workplace become so complicated and confusing that these are the tactics that bosses must adopt in order to survive? If so, it speaks badly for the future of modern workplaces. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Blindsided--Recognizing and Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Leadership in the Workplace (these are just a few of the traits I have listed and discussed: 

How do you feel at the hands of a passive-aggressive boss or co-worker? The word “blindsided” comes to mind. The definition of blindside is “to hit unexpectedly from or as if from the blind side; to surprise unpleasantly” ( blindsided). Thus blindsided describes how one might feel when dealing with a passive-aggressive boss. How many times have you come away from meetings or interactions with a boss or another co-worker, feeling as though you have been hit by a car that came out of nowhere? You just didn’t see it coming. How many times have you been the butt of a joke that isn’t funny or the recipient of undeserved comments, sarcasm and put-downs, and how many times have you wondered about the reason for this behavior? How many times have you ended up feeling used, duped, stabbed in the back, or the victim of dishonest behavior? How many times have you heard that same boss or co-worker describe himself or herself as a nice person (translated--one who tries to help others all the time, never says no to any request, tries to avoid conflict at all costs, one who wants to be liked by all, is not aggressive, never gets angry, is not tyrannical, is not verbally or physically abusive)?
A summary of some of the attitudes and behaviors that characterize passive-aggressive bosses (or co-workers) is presented in the next section. Using the traits and behaviors summarized here, I hope it will become somewhat easier to identify what some might call fairly typical behavior in the workplace as passive-aggressive behavior.

Attitudes/personality traits and corresponding behaviors/patterns of behavior in passive-aggressive leaders

1. Dishonest communicators

Communication with employees is not direct or honest but rather indirect, dishonest, and ambiguous. Employees never get a clear sense of what was discussed, what conclusion was reached, what is expected of them, or what future strategy or plan was outlined. These types of bosses can talk non-stop but little of what they communicate is useful for employees or even remembered by the leaders themselves at future meetings. These leaders are poor listeners and poor communicators. They behave in an indecisive and impulsive manner, are forgetful, lack focus, and are unable to think long-term or systematically. They lack the skills needed to create an organized and rational plan of action for their employees.

2. Flip-floppers

These types of leaders say one thing and then do the other. They change their minds frequently and cannot take a decisive stand on an issue. They forget what was decided upon, which confuses and frustrates those who prefer working with rational thinkers and leaders with the ability to strategize and make long-term plans.

3. Conflict-avoiders

Passive-aggressive leaders dislike conflicts, arguments, disagreements, overt shows of anger, or confrontations. They become uncomfortable or embarrassed by shows of emotion, especially anger. It is possible to recognize anger in them as their faces will redden when confronted and when they are told things they do not like to hear, but otherwise they rarely exhibit overt anger. They view themselves as diplomatic individuals, and many of them have an obsessive need to be well-liked or seen as nice people. They dislike being confronted or having their opinions challenged, but seldom respond with overt anger. Instead they will ‘punish’ employees who initiate discussions or debates (seen as conflicts or arguments)


  1. I think this subject is very interesting. There are probably many reasons for passive-aggressive behaviour, I believe anything from insecurity to unawareness to blatantly bossiness.

  2. Thanks for commenting. It has struck me recently how many workplaces have this style of leadership, which is why I wondered if it is the new managerial survival tactic. It's hard to be criticized or attacked when no one under you or over you understands completely what you meant or what your agenda is. I think some bosses are unaware of their behavior, but others are very aware of what they are doing. Insecurity seems to play a role, I agree. It's a complicated topic but an immensely interesting one.

  3. This type of leader is often viewed as hard working and of high standards, because they are so mean, this leader succeeds because of fear.

    1. I agree, most of them are viewed that way. The fear comes from having to deal with people who deliberately mislead you or are dishonest with you. You know you are on slippery ground with them and can easily lose your footing. Most people would shy away from having to deal with them. But you cannot do that if that person is your boss.

  4. I am dealing with peers (managers) who use passive aggressive tactics to circumvent policy, shirk responsibility/problems, and delay/avoid disagreement with their plans. I doubt this was ever an intentional strategy, but their PA behavior finds "success" that is reinforcing.
    A. PA finds someone in the opposing group that can be influenced. Usually this is a non-manager and/or someone unaware of the conflict. The PA wins their support or sympathy, maybe even out of context. Then the PA touts this support as a "collaborative agreement" between the groups, even though the supporter does not have the authority to agree or commit to the "agreement".
    B. Similar to above, but the PA pressures the target to take on a responsibility for the PA. This is generally used to shift blame and/or problems away from the PA and onto other work groups.
    C. Logical fallacies - red herrings, straw men, etc. etc. Most of the PA tactics seem to boil down to a logical fallacy. I guess if they could win the argument, they wouldn't need PA behavior?
    D. Anything that will avoid or delay the action they do not want to take, or shift attention somewhere else.

    The common response to dealing with passive aggressiveness is to confront it, but this is extremely difficult in the workplace as I try to maintain professionalism. These folks are not idiots and this is a survival mechanism that they have mastered. PA behavior is very immature, even infantile, but is covered up by sophisticated schemes.

  5. Thanks for commenting, Scott. It seems to be a global workplace problem--this shirking of responsibility or shifting it onto others. What you describe is dishonest behavior, designed to cover up political agendas that will ultimately not benefit employees. PA behavior on the part of managers confuses employees, most of whom are in the dark anyway due to poor information flow. Or they only get so much information and end up 'agreeing' to things that they have little knowledge about, as you so aptly described. PA behavior may be immature, but it is damaging to all who are exposed to it, and it ends up demoralizing a workplace. The goal or target shifts all the time, making it impossible to know what it is or how to reach it, because the 'rules' change all the time. Employees can confront such behavior; more often what happens is that they stop caring and that leads to a demoralized workplace. PA workplaces/managers seem to have become more common. I wonder if it is because workplaces have become so top-heavy with administrators and bureaucrats who have too much time on their hands.

  6. You have just described my boss! He became my boss two years ago and ever since I have tried to put in words what I have experienced. I now know that his behaviour is PA. I never get any constructive feedback but he picks on things like 'this table may be too wide' which has nothing to do with my job and my personal development. He talks talks and talks and then does not remember what was agreed upon. He told me in my performance review that I have exceeded several of my objectives and when I saw the final review in writing I had met them but not exceeded. I once had an HR issue I tried to clarify... I approached him several times to get clarification and he told me different stories, i.e. he def. lied to me. He is witholding information, though his boss has now noticed that and asks him to distribute certain information to his team and cross-check with us. He always agrees - with anybody. If I say the door is blue he says 'correct'. If my co-worker says 'actually I think it is yellow' he'd say 'you might be right'. He has no opinion but tries to please everybody when in fact he does not with that sort of behaviour. I get no direction, we have no vision for our team and the worst for me is that I feel he is holding me back. He does not recognise my real efforts (but picks on small things like the thing with the table) and does not develop people. I have yet to figure out whether he does it intentionally or just isnt a good observer. It may be a mix of both. Also, he has this habbit of taking work out of peoples hands without speaking to them about their role and respnsibilities. He just decides for himself that it should be in his hands all of a sudden (presumably because he feels threatened) and there will never be any mention that someone else accomplished it in the past.

    I have gone through a very frustrating period and have been close to getting signed off and quit. I spoke to him many times about certain issues, some have improved e.g. he has become more respectful of my responsibilities and stays away. However, I do not trust him and never will. I have changed my way of communicating massively as a result and do the following:

    - I ask for clarification for every assignment as well as for a deadline and remember him about what was agreed
    - I no longer do other peoples' jobs because he is too afraid to tell them what they need to improve or, even worse, what part of their job they forgot to do. So I either tell these people what needs to be done or he has to tell them
    - At the end of a meeting I summarise what was discussed
    - I drive my own career more than I did before. I connect with people in other departments to learn new things (because I would not get anything constructive from my boss) and at the same time let them know about my accomplishments (I had reason to believe in the past that my boss did not communicate my responsibilities correctly to the higher-ups).
    - If he is indecisive (he usually is) I make a decision for myself and the team. I tell him what I think should be done and he can agree or make a better suggestion
    - Although he is supposed to lead me I do not follow him. I simply do not want to get into the habbit of taking things too easy, forgetting stuff, ignoring deadlines or the beginning of meetings and do mediocre work. I have developed my own standard of excellence which I work towards.

    I am glad I came across your article. I spent the past two years thinking there is something wrong with me. That I am inflexible and take things too seriously. My suggestions above may work for a while, but I believe in the mid-term it is better to move away from this boss and although I like what I do I believe I will ultimately end up at another company.

    1. I am very glad that you took the time to comment and to describe your work situation. I could really relate to your first paragraph, and thank you for your insights. You have figured out your work situation and how your boss is and will most likely remain. I don't believe that a real PA boss can really change. It is the employees working for a PA boss that must change. I agree with you, that in the long run the best thing will probably be to find another job, mostly because it can get very tiring to deal with these types of people. Thankfully, not all bosses are like this. You have this experience and now you know what to look for and what to avoid in potential future bosses. I wish you all the best for the future.

    2. My boss has resigned. The whole team is relieved!

    3. I am so glad to hear that. It is not often that happens. Good luck to you and your team!

  7. Thank you for your comment. I have now also read your book and it was like reading about my boss. What made me laugh is that you mention a PA boss always makes a point in how busy he is. This is so true! In a meeting not long ago my boss claimed in front of his team and his boss that he had worked the past 15 weekends (I doubt he remembers he said that). He constantly lets us know that he is going to do some work overnight and over the weekend. What sort of work I do not know!

    Sadly, I am coming more and more to terms with the fact that I may never become as happy in this company again as I was before. Somehow his behaviour has made me angry now for a very long time and I am now reading a book about anger management *lol*.

    1. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out PA bosses, how to deal with them, how to counteract them, how to not be angry at them. That became my book. I have learned, the hard way, not to engage with them. Very hard if that person is your boss. But if you have several bosses, as many workplaces now have, a bit easier. I try not to interact with PA people generally in a work situation, since it only leads to frustration and confusion. If I have to interact with them at times, I sometimes behave like them. It goes against my better nature, but it saves my sanity. If they don't respond to my emails, I don't respond or will delay responding to theirs. I'll cut a project meeting short if their behavior is out of bounds. That sort of thing. I assert myself without attacking them. Over time, it works in the sense that you don't feel angry, confused or demoralized on a daily basis. It helps you personally but the organization still has the PA leadership problem.

      Thank you for reading my book and commenting. I appreciate receiving comments and feedback from readers and fellow workers out there in the world.

  8. You have also quantified my boss.Another trait she has is always to talk in a low tone with no animation in her voice. Is that common? How do you out them?

    1. If you have heard her talk in a normal tone of voice to others, then it might be that the low tone is being used as a tactic to handle some employees and not others. Body language is important. Eye avoidance, looking down, looking away, mumbling or not being clear. showing lack of interest--could be behaviors of people who have an agenda--a hidden one? I would ask her directly if she could please speak up. If she doesn't, then I would repeat back to her what she says to you, and inform her that you are repeating her words so that you don't misunderstand her since you are having a hard time hearing her. You can say this with other people present as well so they see what you are dealing with. An assertive and honest approach to a situation that is not easy.