Georgina Fuller on how to tell if you are working for a passive-aggressive boss and what to do about it

Do you ever feel as though your manager is sulking about something, avoiding giving you direct instructions or talking about you behind your back? You may well be working for a passive-aggressive boss if so. Psychologist Karen Meager, managing director at Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy, explains. “Passive-aggressive types mainly take the form of covert behaviour, such as sarcasm, nasty side comments, excuses for not doing something, sulky or silent treatment or acting like a helpless victim.”

What are the signs?

Unfortunately, many of us can display this type of behaviour from time to time so it can be hard to pinpoint whether your boss really fits the typical passive-aggressive stereotype. “Passive aggression can be very subtle so the key is to pay attention and work out whether this is a pattern of behaviour for your manager or whether they are just having an off day,” says Meager. “Passive aggressives feel they cannot speak out directly, so drop hints and make comments and vague suggestions in the hope that someone will pick it up and do something about it. When their needs are not met they can become increasingly sarcastic or critical and leave you wondering what you did wrong - or whether you are mad.”

Passive aggressive managers will usually be very critical of other people and find it hard to take responsibility for themselves. They will often have a litany of excuses as to why something hasn’t worked out (none of which will have anything to do with them) and become defensive if you try and raise an issue with them. This can make working for them very difficult. “People with passive-aggressive type managers often feel confused and under-valued but may not know why, because often the passive-aggressive type can appear outwardly pleasant and friendly,” Meager explains.

Acting the bully

As I that wasn’t bad enough, these sorts of managers can also display behaviour which we typically associate with classroom bullies, such as making fun of others and criticising them in front of their colleagues. So says executive coach and management consultant at CC Consulting Rosemary Cooper-Clark. “They can take away responsibilities away from you without telling you, ignore your suggestions in meetings, take full credit for your work and even pass it off as their own.”

So what is the best and most effective way of dealing with such unprofessional behaviour? Whatever you do, says Meager, don’t confront them. “They do not respond well to direct confrontation so if you want a working relationship with them it is usually best not to confront them directly or they will get very defensive and will probably never forgive you.” lnstead, Meager advises asking specific questions without making them feel defensive. For example, saying ‘I’m not clear on what I need to do here, could you take me through it’. On the rare occasions that they are ever direct or straight with you, thank them for this and show them how much you appreciate it.

“Don’t join in their passive aggressive games,” advises Meager. “Avoid colliding with them in gossip or putting others down, it will only come back on you and you may end up with the blame in the ‘he said, she said game.”

Seeking support

Seeking supporters and champions could also help, says Cooper-Clark. “Ask others for their experiences, views and suggestions. At the least, it allows you to share your concerns so that you don’t feel alone. It could also provide allies,” she notes. “Remain professional, ask yourself what is the outcome I want from this and how can I go about getting it? This may mean facing up to challenging their behaviour rather than trying to work around them.”

Whilst confronting them head on may not be wise, you should, at the very least, address their behaviour as the consequences of not doing so could make your life even more difficult. “Your future prospects may be hindered or damaged by their actions and you may need to seek another manager to progress further,” Cooper-Clark warns.

How can you spot if your manager is a passive-aggressive type? Rosemary Cooper-Clark, executive coach and management consultant at CC Consulting, highlights the key traits.

• Ignores your suggestions in meetings and then congratulates someone else for the comment or idea. 
• Takes full credit for the work and presents it themselves, not allowing the person to be recognised for their contribution or introduced to senior leaders.
• Doesn’t share information or knowledge believing “knowledge is power”
• Makes fun of someone or criticises them in front of others.