Handling a Passive-Aggressive Leader

"not" symbol for passive aggressiveWhen someone openly criticizes your work, at least you know where they stand, directly. But someone who uses indirect expressions of blame, upset, or complaint can grate on anyone. This passive-aggressive behavior can create an atmosphere of constant stress, doubt and fear, which I’ve never seen lead to good things. Rather, the result is a team that resents their leadership, hides out so as to not come into the crosshairs of the boss and privately complains about the state of the department/company. Is this familiar to you?

You can handle passive-aggressive leaders. First, you have to realize that they likely are not aware of their behavior. So, don’t take it personally (they do it to everyone!). But more importantly, you have to determine YOUR behavior in these situations and whether the effort to manage your reactions is worth it to you.

Here are somethings to consider and decisions to make:

Decision #1: Do I trust and want to follow this person?

Always remember, you don’t HAVE to work for this person. Sure, changing jobs can be a whole other source of angst but, it could alter your situation for the better. So, before you starting looking at how to handle a passive-aggressive leader, answer these questions:

  • Are they a good person deep down?
  • Do they have the level of integrity I want in a leader?
  • Is their strategic plan one I can fully align with?

If you can’t answer positively to all of those questions, then consider whether it is worth continuing in your current role. If it is, proceed to your next decision.

Decision #2: Am I willing to be the one who stands up?

You must realize that if you have been the target of passive-aggressive behavior, others have as well. You may have even observed this with others. In order for things to change, someone has to make the first move and stand up to the leader.  Is that going to be you? If so, you have to have your company’s health and future at the forefront of your mind as you do so. You’ve got to believe in yourself and your goodwill towards the firm’s mission. This will give you the confidence to know that you are doing the right thing.

Decision #3: Can I separate the person from their behavior?

It is essential to see the person for their good versus blaming them for this often involuntary behavior. Most likely, they’ve been practicing this behavior for so long it’s just become who they are. But that doesn’t make them “bad.” It may mean that no one has pointed out this behavior and the damage it is causing. Separate the behavior from the person to realize that most everyone wants to be liked, wants to be good at what they do and wants to improve. If you approach them with this in mind, you can start a meaningful, constructive dialogue.

Decision #4: Can I outlast them?

Remember, the first decision you made was that you wanted to stay and make the situation better. So, now that means you should outlast them. They may show great fortitude in holding on to their negative behavior! Essentially, your goal is to remain resilient to the behavior and presenting yourself and your ideas in an enthusiastic, well-thought out manner. Let them know through your persistence that you are going to keep working towards creating a new dynamic between you. Trust that you are a valuable member of the team so, losing you should not be a risk they are willing to take. And again, outlast them!

If you’ve answered yes to these questions, then create a plan to begin altering the situation. Here’s how.

  • Create a dashboard of information you share with them on a formalized/calendared basis that illustrates your work product in a terse, positive fashion.
  • Ask for their opinion of the dashboard and if need be, create it together. This illustrates your desire to partner with them and present data you both agree on.
  • Proactively illicit their opinion of issues, listen and probe into these issues to understand their values. Once you understand their values you can formulate your recommendations inside their aperture of value (not yours).
  • Ask them how your doing, regularly. Feedback is important to everyone. This takes a fair amount of courage but it says to them, “I’ve got the constitution to ask and transform my behavior when we mutually agree it needs to transform.”

Most ingrained behaviors cannot be changed overnight. Give it time. Practice patience. And most of all, stay on it. Know that BOTH of you will benefit from this transformation in the future.

Do you have a passive-aggressive boss? In what way does this behavior show up? Let me know in comments below. Thanks! – sg


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