Part Two: Surviving the Passive Aggressive Organisation

My last article on the passive-aggressive boss finished with the sobering thought that some organisations are breeding-grounds for passive-aggressive behaviours.

If your place of work is built on the precepts of indecision, compromise and conformity where people lack the authority or means to speak up, the passive-aggressive resistance will emerge.

Healthy organisations are easy to spot:  managers and staff alike have access to the necessary information to make authoritative decisions; inclusion is encouraged across the board; time is precious and productive; and power-struggles between employees are replaced with cooperation.  People are more concerned with focusing on goals and positive relationships than subscribing to selfish agendas and petty bickering.

Healthy organisations are extremely resilient:  they respond quickly to challenges and recuperate rapidly from those they cannot escape.

Unfortunately, according to Booz Allen Hamilton who conducted a global online survey of 30,000 individuals, most organisations are not resilient. Less than 1 in 5 individuals surveyed described their organisation as resilient.  Passive-aggressive (that quiet but tenacious resistance) received the largest number (almost 30%) of descriptions as being the way their organisations performed.

Of the passive-aggressive, bureaucracies and institutions tended to top the list and are typically the least efficient organisations.  Frustrated aspirations are the curse of large bureaucracies.  People seem unable to accomplish enough to be fully recognised, and drive and ambition are too often replaced by systemic organisational inertia.

Those with initiative wait endlessly for decisions to be made and any action finally taken to progress that great idea/project (sometimes out of frustration) is accompanied by attacks of nervous anxiety for the moment the work is ‘now’ deemed unnecessary and dies a sluggish and miserable death.

Passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace is a serious problem.  But not all is lost:  there are viable strategies for dealing with passive-aggressive bosses and work environments.

Create a Culture of Honesty

In and of itself, an honest culture will not ‘convert’ the passive-aggressive leader nor halt the passive-aggressive organisation, but it will make it more difficult for them to act dishonestly and manipulate others. Manipulation, lies and ambiguity are harder to get away with if the organisation is one of honesty, trust and good intent.

Call the Sin of Omission

Don’t allow a non-response.  Deliberately withholding information that could otherwise empower better decision-making is wrong. Expect contribution and active assertion of ideas.  An introvert must learn to speak more and an extravert must learn to embrace the art of brevity.

Set Boundaries

Very few people set boundaries in life, let alone the workplace.  Loose boundaries are so easily exploited by the passive-aggressive boss. Verbalise and internalise your boundaries so as to be strong in the moment of challenge.  The more you hold firm on what’s reasonable for you and the team, the more you take back and own your personal power.

Make a List:  Stay or Go

Write down all the positives and negatives of your workplace situation:  what you like/don’t like, your strengths, your contributions to the broader team, the work situation on a daily basis.  Be on the lookout for self-insight and discovery.  Put it away and do it again in a couple of months to see if you feel the same way.

You may just discover it’s time to move on to get away from the passive-aggressive boss and/or organisation.  If all possibilities for dealing with the situation have been exhausted, sum up your circumstances and actively pursue other work or career options.

The list making will prove very beneficial in making the decision to the engage in the next career advancement.

Avoid Secrecy and Promote Open Decision-making

Secrecy is very different from privacy.  All information relevant to the task at hand should be disclosed.  Don’t participate in or perpetuate an environment of secrecy.  Speak up and expect the same from others.  Don’t allow hiding behind the veil of ‘confidentiality’ or ‘privacy legislation’; these are overused to excuse secrecy.

Encourage all levels of management to be consistently and constantly inclusive in decision-making and information sharing.  Silence is not your friend – it’s a sign there’s fear of reprisal.

Find Your Voice

Assertiveness is the key to changing the passive-aggressive workplace:  not passivity or aggression, and definitely not passive-aggressive behaviour.  Learn to speak up in an honest and direct way.  Do not surround the contributions you make with soft pillows (being too ‘nice’) so as to be seen as ‘not upsetting someone’.  Your message is valid and you need to own its delivery.  Learn how to ‘speak’ it with confidence in neutral and calm tones with checked and certified facts and managed emotions.

Stand up for yourself.  Self-respect grows from honest and assertive responses to poor behaviour.  Build networks of positive, supportive people, both laterally and vertically.  You are fighting back, and being silenced is no longer an option – having reassuring and compassionate allies is a must.


Transforming the passive-aggressive organisation is impossible without the recognition and engagement of senior leadership teams.  That said, all levels of management can, and do, make a difference.

Becoming assertive verbally and non-verbally enables you to maintain respect and defend your rights without succumbing to the manipulative and controlling behaviours used by the passive-aggressive.

Test your assertiveness

Being Effective and Loved at the Same Time

Leadership and Social Skills

You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.  Which is just another way of saying that the way to make a friend is to be one.

Dale Carnegie

Two renowned leadership scholars, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, offer the following research conclusion:

Researchers looked at a number of factors that could account for a manager’s success.

They found only one factor significantly differentiated the top managers from the bottom managers: high scores on affection – both expressed and wanted.

The highest performing managers show more warmth and fondness toward others than do the bottom 25 percent.  They get closer to people, and they are significantly more open to sharing thoughts and feelings than their low performing counter-parts.

All things being equal, we will work harder and more effectively for people we like.  And we like them in direct proportion to how they make us feel!

James  Kouzes & Barry Posner,  Encouraging the Heart:  A Leaders Guide to Recognising and Rewarding Others,  2003

How to be liked and effective:  it’s a leadership thing!

Scientific research now has evidence that practising kindness is not only good for the recipient but also good for the giver.  Being kind, even when it’s unpleasant, being generous and willing to share especially when you expect nothing in return, genuinely makes people happy.

Happiness = Engagement = Success

Just do two of these (all five if you really get the picture) and see the difference:

  • Show people that you value them
  • Pursue mutual understanding and information sharing
  • Be upfront and straightforward, avoiding games and office politics
  • Approach conflict constructively, staying aware of others’ feelings
  • Bring disagreements into the open and help de-escalate them


Try the Kindness Challenge:

Give yourself a goal of performing Five Acts of Kindness on any single day, once a week.

Aim for actions that really make a difference and come at some cost to you.  Be both creative and thoughtful.

Take stock at the end of the day.  Notice the good feelings that come with your increasing kindness:  the positive connection to the person you helped; the sense of pride you get from making a contribution.

Try it for a few months and see the difference it makes.

Leadership and Likeability

Contrary to conventional wisdom, likeability is high on the scale of importance for successful leaders.

Likeability is a genuine kindness and compassion for others that comes wholly from within and extends indiscriminately without.  It is generous in its offering and profoundly felt when received.

Leadership needs positive intent.  It is more than people merely getting along with one another, being pleasant and ‘nice’ and avoiding conflict.  Every interaction and conversation had by a direct supervisor or manager is an opportunity to stretch beyond the basics. 

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What is Leadership Coaching?

Leadership Coaching is an individual or a team process for leaders and managers; it is designed to bring about more effective and healthier organisations.  Leadership coaching focuses on building in leaders the capability to achieve short- and long-term organisational goals.

Historically, leadership coaching was initiated as a tincture to save derailing managers before the fall-out from their behaviour became too great.  However, most organisations now refuse to wait for trouble; they understand the notion of prevention being better than cure.

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