If Your Boss Is Passive-Aggressive, You Must Read This

Career News

Passive-aggressive bosses are frustrating and stressful but fortunately there’s an easy way to deal with them.

By Geoffrey James, Contributing editor, Inc.com,

Bosses who get in your face–the plain old aggressive ones–are stressful. But the bosses who manipulate rather than yell–the passive-aggressive ones–can be just as bad.

Passive aggressive bosses 1) keep their office door closed all the time, 2) don’t answer essential emails promptly, 3) play employees against each other… but the most frustrating passive-aggressive boss behavior is the dreaded “rock fetch.” Here’s the routine:

  • You: “I need a decision on this. It is a go? Or a no-go?”
  • Boss: “I’m inclined to say yes, but first I need you to do A.”

So you spend time and effort–in addition to your regular work–to compete task A.

  • You (to boss): “Here you go. So, what’s your decision?”
  • Boss: “Excellent work! Now all I need is B.”

So you spend time and effort–again in addition to your regular work–to compete task B.

  • You (to boss): “Here you go. So, what’s your decision?”
  • Boss: “Good job! I’m really proud of you. However, there have been some internal changes–nothing you need to worry about–so what I need now is C.”

This continues until you realize the answer actually was, is, and always will be: “No.”

  • You (exasperated): “Why didn’t you just say ‘No’ in the first place?”
  • Boss: “If you had done D by last week, as I asked, maybe we could have moved forward. But now it’s too late.”
  • You (internally): “Arghhhhhhhhh!”

So, while your garden-variety “my way or the highway” aggressive boss might stress you out, but at least you know where you stand.

With the passive-aggressive boss, you end up doing a bunch of extra work… and you’re still not 100% sure you whether you could have gotten to “Yes” if you hadn’t given up.

Now that’s serious stress!

Fortunately, there’s a way to deal with these human vexations:

1. Realize that you’re not alone.

Passive-aggressive bosses are surprisingly common, especially in large organizations. The experience of working for one is a rite of passage. Live and learn, with the emphasis on the learning part.

2. Understand what’s really going on.

Passive-aggressive bosses don’t like saying “no” because they don’t want take responsibility for that decision. After all, you might get offended, or quit, or back-stab them,  or whatever…

So from their perspective, it’s safer and easier to pretend to say “Yes” but covertly drive the outcome to “No.” That way, they get what they want (to “No”) while making it seem like the “No” is the result of your failings. They want you to blame yourself, not them.

Also, passive-aggressors secretly enjoy frustrating other people, because it makes them feel as if they’re in control and superior. BTW, passive-aggressors are not always self-aware enough to realize that they’re getting a kick out the situation. But they do.

3. Pin them down with specifics.

Passive-aggressive bosses thrive on ambiguity and plausible deniability so your weapons against this are precision and persistence. Make the first conversation go something like this:

  • You: “Let me get this straight. Do I have your firm commitment that, if I do A, you’ll say Yes?”
  • Boss: “Well, that depends upon how A turns out.”
  • You: “In what way, exactly? What do you need to see? How do we get to a final decision?”
  • Boss (starting to feel trapped): “Well, there might be some other things… I don’t know yet.”
  • You: “What other things, specifically?”

Keep driving towards specifics. The conversation will end one of two ways:

  1. Your boss will say something like “I’ll know it when I see it” or some other vague, ambiguous criteria. In this case, you know the REAL answer is “No” and that no amount of rock-fetching is going to make any difference. Congratulations! You just saved yourself a load of wasted effort.
  2. Your boss will provide you with a complete list of required rocks. Now you know enough to decide whether or not it’s worth the effort to fetch all of them. If you decide it IS worth the effort–IMPORTANT–get the agreement in writing! Send an email based on your notes from the meeting. Do nothing until you get a response affirming the commitment.

Experience says that the first outcome–vague ambiguity–is by far the most likely outcome. But that’s fine. Rather than get sucked into a rock-fetch, put your time and energy into finding another job, or a different boss.

Actually, just do that anyway.

Inc.

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