Q: Hi Heather,
One form of passive aggressive behavior is a boss who looks displeased but does not speak to you for a day or several days. I am retired now but have been through a variety of good & bad managers. There is seemingly no recourse from moody nonspeaking bosses. If reported, one may be labeled as being over sensitive. What are your recommendations?
A: Wouldn’t it be nice to just sit down and have a little chat when those situations arise? But that is exactly what the passive-aggressive personality seeks to avoid. Whether due to unresolved issues from childhood or problems with authority or maybe a poorly masked lack of self-confidence, this type of individual is extremely uncomfortable with confrontation and personal accountability.
The good news is: It’s not your fault. Blame his mom (doesn’t everybody?) or the fact that he was an underappreciated late bloomer or -- the cause is unimportant, but rest assured, something happened long before he started ignoring and procrastinating in your office.
The bad news is that it's happening in your office. So it becomes a matter of letting it remain the boss’ issue in a way that won’t unduly affect the employee’s work performance.
Passive-aggressive behavior manifests in multiple ways: procrastination, subtle sabotage, sullenness and a discrepancy between words and behavior to name just a few. Sounds a little childish, doesn’t it? And yet, he (or she) is the boss.
Here’s what you do. My three "D"s for dealing with passive-aggressive personalities are:
1) Be Direct. Yeah, Jim doesn’t want to discuss what angered him in the meeting. Maybe it was that Tom took off with an initiative. Maybe he thought you missed a point. Maybe there wasn’t enough caffeine in the coffee. Instead of agonizing over which one it might be, just ask. “Hey Jim, you don’t seem very happy with how the meeting went. Is there anything you’d like me to do differently next time?” Jim may brush you off with a smile. He may shrug indifferently, and then stomp off down the hallway. Or he may tell you. Open the opportunity -and then let it go. You can’t make him talk.
2) Document. So she isn’t being clear about things? She says things are fine, but is acting a little sullen toward you? If you’ve tried using your words, use your email. Address issues in written form. Yes, they may be ignored. But you will have a record of your sent emails showing your attempts to identify and rectify. Keep written and electronic records from meetings and discussions. Maintain a digital paper trail to protect yourself from sudden sabotage.
3: Be a Duck. Your boss has the issue. Don’t let it become your problem by stressing over unspoken words and vibes. Be as professional as you know how to be. Accept criticism with grace. Be grateful and generous with praise. Don’t be absorbent, allowing your mood to ebb and flow with his passive-aggressive quirks. Let the good and the bad roll off your back, and then move on out of the puddle before you get your feet wet!
If you have a question for Heather, email her at Heather@heatherdugan.com and maybe she'll answer it in her next column!