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Passive Aggression: Ebola of the Workplace

I apologize for the delay in this week’s article but it required some deep psychological research into the bowels of the human psyche. Last week I received an anonymous email through the website that read like this:

 Hello –

I am a regular reader of The Art of Advice and I thought I’d pose the following scenario to you. I’m not sure if it falls in your area of expertise but I thought I’d suggest it anyway as a potential topic. I have a boss who is a classic passive-aggressive. She can’t seem to give me direct feedback or address me head-on. Rather, she constantly blames herself, her lack of communication or her leadership for my: quote “less than stellar performance.” She will go around telling people about my faults but never talks to me about them. She consistently leaves me off emails, forgets to invite me to meetings and will never ask my opinion during staff meetings. Frankly, I’m getting sick of it! What am I to do? I can deal with brash, direct “New York types” all day long but don’t know what to do with my boss other than ask for a transfer or find a new job.  Should I try to make it work?  Is it even worth it?

Any advice?

Thank you,
A Reader

Admittedly, this was my first email seeking advice, which is ironic given that the blog is called “The Art of Advice,” but I digress.  So, first and foremost, thank you – whoever you are – for reading the blog and taking the time to send in your dilemma.  Second, let me preface the following article with an acknowledgement that diagnosing and treating social and psychological disorders is way outside my wheelhouse, but hey; that never stopped me from trying to help before, right?

OK, so where do we begin?  To understand passive-aggressive personalities, let’s turn to the experts. After all, we must understand our enemy before we engage them in mortal combat.  This idea of passive aggressive personalities intrigued me. I suppose I’d been around people who I would deem passive-aggressive but I never really took the time to understand them. I wanted to “get clinical” and come to know the true definition of a passive-aggressive person.  After *extensive* research (via Google), I found a textbook titled “Personality Disorders in Modern Life.” The chapter introduction describing the “Negativistic (Passive Aggressive) Personality” seemed to perfectly portray my reader’s boss:

“Some people just seem unsure of which way to turn in life. Ever ambivalent, they vacillate between uneasy feelings of dependence and an equally uneasy desire for self-assertion. Simultaneously needy and independent, they agree to conform to requests for performance, but nevertheless have strong issues with authority and resent external control. Inevitably, they feel misunderstood, unappreciated, and disillusioned. As their discontent deepens, they begin to find fault with the way others treat them and engage in indirect or passive forms of behavioral and emotional protest. On the surface, they agree to follow through but then sabotage the expectations of others through procrastination, intentional inefficiency, shoddy workmanship, and subtle obstruction. Stubborn, uncooperative, contrary, nitpicking, sulking, pouting, and pessimistic, they dampen the spirits of those around them. Though they sometimes make genuine confessions of remorse, eventually they become sullen and oppositional once more. All despise and defy authority and seek to avenge their disillusionment by undermining anyone who would require something from them. Such individuals are often called passive-aggressive personalities.”

(Source: Personality Disorders in Modern Life (Second Edition); T. Millon, S. Grossman, C. Millon, S. Meagher, R. Ramnath)

More intensive academic research yielded a few other amazing (and funny) videos of passive-aggressives in action:

The chapter later goes on to further classify these people into four sub-types (see table below). Who knew negativists were so complicated?

Vacillating

Emotions fluctuate in bewildering perplexing, and enigmatic ways; difficult to fathom or comprehend own capricious and mystifying moods; wavers, in flux, and irresolute both subjectively and intra-psychically.

Circuitous

Opposition displayed in a roundabout, labyrinthine, and ambiguous manner, e.g., procrastination, dawdling, forgetfulness, inefficiency, neglect, stubbornness, indirect and devious in venting resentment and resistant behaviors.

Abrasive

Contentious, intransigent, fractious, and quarrelsome; irritable, caustic, debasing, corrosive, and acrimonious, contradicts and derogates; few qualms and little conscience or remorse.

Discontented

Grumbling, petty, testy, cranky, embittered, complaining, fretful, vexed, and moody; gripes behind pretense; avoids confrontation; uses legitimate but trivial complaints.

 

(Source: Personality Disorders in Modern Life (Second Edition); T. Millon, S. Grossman, C. Millon, S. Meagher, R. Ramnath)

As I read the descriptions of each sub-type, I thought about my reader’s boss and, based on the short description, it sounds like she meets the criteria for Vacillating and Circuitous. Well, just because you understand the clinical names for it does not make it easier to deal with. But at least we can put a name, and a diagnosis, to it.

But how do we deal with the specific problem described in her note? Here’s my advice…

First, rule out the obvious: perhaps your boss is just plain oblivious. Maybe she did not know you wanted to be invited to that meeting, included in that email chain or wanted to express your opinion during the staff meeting. Heck, maybe she’s sociopathic and unaware of the negative impact of her actions on you or others. Let’s assume that you have ruled this out and you believe this is a deliberate act and not a simple oversight.

Next, I would talk to her, in person, privately.  Set up some time to discuss the examples you mentioned. Clearly lay them out and be specific. If she does not acknowledge it as important or writes it off as an overreaction, tell her how each instance made you feel and suggest a productive alternate course of action.  Something like: “I’d really like to be involved in those meetings. I think I have a good perspective and unique experience I can add to make the the project a success…”

A recent Ohio State University study recently published a study that concluded that standing up to hostile bosses actually helps improve job satisfaction without hurting one’s career. The  British Psychological society wrote that “the study found that those who do reciprocate [to their hostile bosses] tend to endure less psychological distress, as well as higher levels of job satisfaction.” Lead author Bennett Tepper admitted to being surprised by the findings, as he had not expected this to be the case. “If your boss is hostile, there appears to be benefits to reciprocating,” he said. “Employees felt better about themselves because they didn’t just sit back and take the abuse.”

Of course, there’s an art to confronting others in a productive and constructive manner.  But the point is: don’t worry about taking a stand against the hostile behavior. Do it in a calm, rational and constructive way and you will feel better about it.

The next thing I’d do is send a “thank you” note to your boss and recap what you and she commit to during the course of the meeting. Now you’re “on record” and you can reference this note for future violations. Should this happen again, talk to your boss again and gently reminder her you want to be included per your conversation. Warning: it may take a few tries; old habits are hard to break so stay positive.

I also recommend you find someone (a mentor, a coach or trusted colleague) you can talk to about the situation. Sometimes getting an independent read on the situation from someone with context on the personalities can be helpful. They may be able to guide you on techniques that are effective with your boss. Oh, and your HR rep can be a helpful coach in times like these; solicit their advice and guidance.

If it happens consistently over time after the private conversation, follow up notes, reminders, and any recommended course of action from HR, I’d question if this is the right boss for you. After all avenues have been exhausted, consider transferring or perhaps looking for another job if this kind of behavior is engrained in the culture and embraced as acceptable.

I can’t imagine your frustration and disappointment working in that kind of environment. That is no way to go to work every day.

You know, it’s amazing. One of my colleagues and company leaders, Kim Simios, said in a recent spotlight video “…our tone sets the pace and mood throughout the rest of the team,” and that is so true. This kind of passive-aggressive behavior can spread like a virus throughout an organization. Finding productive ways to deal with it can be difficult but a bit of courage can go a long way.

I hope this advice helps you deal with your negativist boss and thank you again for your question.

I’ll leave you with this consolation prize: at least you don’t work for Passive Aggressive Pam (or maybe you do)!

 

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