Six Recognisable Characteristics of the Passive Aggressive Boss

Beware the boss who describes him or herself as a nice person who doesn’t like conflict.

Of all the possible personality types, passive-aggressive behaviour is the most difficult to pin-down; it’s awkward to read and extremely tough to manage.  Why?  The passive-aggressive is never at fault, always puts responsibility elsewhere through blame or excuse making and does it all with considerable panache!

Trying to ‘out’ passive-aggressive behaviour can be perilous.  Many people will respond with, “Oh, he’s such a nice person, I can’t believe he would say that”, or, “I think you’re overreacting, she’s never been that way to me.”

Learning charm and diplomacy at an early age, the passive aggressive is driven to appear above suspicion and blameless; negotiating the world as a nice person who always rejects even the slightest hint of antagonism or conflict.

Working for a passive-aggressive boss is tough.  Half the time you may be thinking you’re imagining things. You’re not!  The rest of the time you’ll be wondering what you did wrong, how did you let the conversation become so dysfunctional and why do you feel so let down, frustrated and angry…again!

Dealing with these leaders on a daily basis takes inordinate amounts of emotional wear and tear.  It’s a constant corrosion of confidence through indirect criticisms and ambiguous tones.  You may never know why the project you invested so much time into is now being pulled!

Passive-aggressive leaders do far more long-term damage to an employee’s self-esteem than most other personality types.

Recognising the characteristics of the subtly destructive leader:

1. Dishonest communicators

You can never get to the bottom of what was said.  Conversations with staff are indirect, not quite honest and often ambiguous.  Although passive-aggressive leaders are happy to talk for hours if given the chance, much of what is said is unnecessary or forgotten by the time the next meeting comes around.  Listening is the breath they take between sentences.  Lacking in focus, they are ill equipped to think strategically or systematically.

2. Inconsistent

These leaders say one thing and do the exact opposite.  They cannot tolerate being kept waiting, but will invariably keep you waiting; procrastinating and dawdling and always with an extraordinary excuse that keeps on coming.

The only pattern is, there is no pattern.  Minds are changed frequently and in the search for approval they cannot take a decisive stand on any issue.

3. Avoid conflict

Passive-aggressive leaders dislike any kind of conflict, healthy or otherwise.  Every disagreement is seen as a confrontation and any overt shows of emotion, especially anger, cause them great discomfort and embarrassment.  Obsessed with being well liked and ‘nice’, they rarely display overt anger.  Instead, if you have initiated discussions or debates (which they will interpret as arguments or personal challenges, both deeply disliked), you may well suffer covert consequences:  being left out of discussions, being the recipient of dismissive responses or suffering ‘well meaning, constructive’ criticism at every opportunity.

4. Undermine

Passive aggressive leaders envy those who possess qualities they know they don’t have or those who achieve high levels of success.  Their way of dealing with feelings of inadequacy is to undermine the success of others.  They will choose a skill or competency that a peer or direct report may not yet have mastered (but they have…) and make regular offhand comments (sarcastic and/or spiteful).  If challenged, the fall-back position is always, “I’m only joking, where’s your sense of humour?”

They cannot be honestly enthusiastic about the successes of others and do not like competition, especially from the employees.  Always take care when using this person as a referee.

5. Controlling

Power, control and prestige are everything to the passive-aggressive leader but they will NEVER admit to it.  They are obsessed with control but do all they can to appear ‘laid-back’.  Ambitions are played down as the landscape is surveyed for opportunities for greater prestige.

They have a strong desire to be right and expect compliance.  You’ll never quite know where you stand:  the indirect aggression, the dishonesty, and the crippling need for control all create enormous difficulties in the workplace.

6. Low Emotional Intelligence

It’s not surprising that passive-aggressive leaders lack self-esteem and have low levels of self confidence.  It’s all an act.  Overt confidence without an ounce of humility is a guaranteed indicator of deep-seated feelings of fear, of unworthiness.  Poor self-awareness coupled with a broken social antenna creates interactions that are disingenuous and lacking tact and insight.  When it comes to daily dealings with employees, exchanges are all too often disrespectful, again with that irritatingly jovial overtone.

Passive-aggressive leaders cannot genuinely apologise for their behaviour.  Due to their inadequate levels of emotional intelligence, they lack the insight necessary to understand their behaviour is inappropriate.

If your organisation offers few avenues for self-expression and has an underpinning culture that discourages conflict, or challenges to the status quo, you may well be a breeding ground for passive-aggressive behaviour.  When people lack the authority or means to speak up, the resistance will emerge, indirectly and covertly.