Passive-Aggressive Boss

9 Strategies For Dealing With A Passive Aggressive Boss


Are you dealing with a passive aggressive boss in work? Do they aggressively change something you were working on, but passively address it with you or your co-workers?

Here is an example. Manager decides to change an employee’s responsibilities but decides to tell others before telling the person involved. Or another one. Manager knows there is an issue but avoids it for weeks, hoping the issue will fix itself, rather than being the leader and taking care of the challenge quickly and decisively. In a passive-aggressive type of manager the decision making is not very clear or concrete. If you have reported to someone like this, you know how awful this can be.

I have had a few of these bosses and it was the most frustrating time I have ever had in my career. I am seeing more and more of this in today’s corporate culture and it is disturbing. I am wondering if any manager is being truly “trained” to be an effective leader of people. It is strange, middle management is passive-aggressive but in the board room they yell at each other. Go figure. I think a bit more reading of good leadership books are in order. My newest favorite is The Mentor Leader, by Tony Dungy.

In my research of this topic, I found some great articles and resources. Here is what psychologist Neil Warner says about these types of managers. Notes in () are my additions.

“There are some characteristics of a passive aggressive manager, which in present times look like the necessary tools for survival of the meanest. These tactics sometimes get confused within the authority aura that higher ups exude, but after some time there is no more denial possible. Your own reactions are telling you to watch out and not be surprised by some backstabbing and dirty tricks. Are you familiar or have you been in the receiving end of someone of the following ‘nice attitudes?’

  • The boss that takes full credit from the team’s work thus sabotaging employee advancement;  (and moral)
  • The boss keeps complete control over the project; (and changes their mind every other day about the direction of the project or the process to be followed)
  • The boss restricts necessary information for the worker to do a good job;
  • Planning for meetings with the employee and showing up later or never;
  • Overriding the worker’s authority with his team;
  • Criticizing an employee in public, making him feel worthless;
  • Exploiting an employee’s particular talent;
  • Withholding employee recognition and praise;
  • Playing another worker against old time employee;
  • Micro-managing decisions which are in the employee power to do.”

Neil couldn’t have listed these any better. Have you seen these? If so, how did you react? How did it make you feel? Generally known as a high energy, get things done kind of person, this type of behavior in my manager, drove me to shut down. I became very unproductive and eventually started to show my own passive-aggressive behavior which is NOT the best way to handle this type of manager. So what is?

There is not a cookie cutter solution for every situation but here are some strategies that can help.

1. Make Sure It’s Not You

Yes – look at yourself first to truly access the situation. I may have lost a few of you here but really we have to do a gut check first before we can point fingers. Be honest. Is your boss really off their rocker or is your behavior triggering some of the reactions you are getting. Be sure you are the hardest most ethical worker this manager has ever had.

Also, be humble. Pride causes the worst problems in any organization. Ask a close friend and confident who will be honest with you if there is something in your behavior that needs some adjusting. If you determine it is not you move onto #2.

2. Stay Professional

Always keep your head clear and work professionally no matter how crazy the boss gets (and they can get nutty – believe me I know). Enough said.

3. Don’t Take It Personally

Any difficult boss that continues in bad behavior for long stretches is truly worth of your sympathy more than your anger. They are struggling and don’t know how to fix it. Perhaps you can politely and professionally guide them, without them knowing of course. Once you realize it is not you triggering these reactions, try to be sure to not take their attacks personally.

4. Set Clear Expectations

Yes, I am asking you to “manage your boss.” Have a meeting with your boss to be sure you know what they expect of you. Have them state it very clearly and with deadlines. Then be sure it get it in writing.

5. Get It All In Writing

Any and all conversations that have discussed important details or goals be sure to send an e-mail or write a document that reviews the conversation. Be sure to get a response from your manager, again in writing. You may need this later to clear up any confusion.

6. Stand Up For Yourself

If you continue to let this behavior go on without defending yourself, you are just as much at fault. I know this is a hard one. I struggled with this. Many times it was easier to work around that manager than to directly confront them. Besides I never knew what they would be like that day. The key here is to be professional, not emotional.

7. Find Another Manager

This can take on various forms. One strategy is to find another manager / VP with whom you can work more closely with and who would be willing to mentor and support you even if it is just throughout the life of a project. This is when a “dotted line” manager can be a blessing. Or, find a new manager. Do a transfer within the organization. Or, really find a new manager and make a leap to a new company or job. That can seem extreme but if significant time has passed and all the strategies in the world are not making your work environment more pleasant, it is time to move on.

8. Get A Hobby

Make sure your work is not all encompassing or this crazy manager who changes their mind all the time will send you to the looney bin. Life is not all about work. There is so much more. Go find the more and enjoy it!

9. Get Desk Toys

Meaningless humor I know. But really, a stress ball can be amazing in helping the mouth from spewing profanities at the next innocent co-worker who comes by your desk to ask you something. Consider it. I had a Zen garden.

To go deeper into strategies, find a mentor that can help. One that either knows the organization well or is completely separate from the frustration, so they can give you an objective view. Either way, you will grow and learn something you didn’t know before this experience. Look for the positives.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Lisa Adams

Lisa Adams, founder of Fresh Air Careers, is a certified career management coach and job search strategist, specializing in helping young professionals transition.


  1. This describes my manager who has decided that my invisible disability, and autoimmune condition makes me incapable of learning new things and so has vetoed my continuation of my previously agreed course of Masters study. She’ll withhold information, spread gossip, tell untruths and nasty comments masked as confidences and those are the reasons I am leaving. She tries to stop our department interacting with others, wants to know who we’ve been to see, who we’ve been talking to, bursts in on private meetings, micromanages, expects a list of jobs but only from me, has told me she doesn’t trust me but has given me no reason why and refused to explain! Accused me of locking her out of my calendar, a complete nut job! Oh and she’s decided to stop all support of a database after I leave, but won’t be telling the client until after I’ve left. I guess it’ll be blamed on my incompetence as a programmer? Clearly as I have a disability I must have an intellectual and psychological issue too?

    • Oh and just to creep you all out, she came into my office starts picking up items from my desk as if she owns them but the absolute corker was when she went over to my quilted coat and started stroking it! Has she have attempted to try it on I think she’d have been on a trajectory out of the window!

      WTF! I’d been on a course where they said that the powerful people stand their ground when others do this. But seriously, I’m leaving this nutter…

  2. Leave is the best result … unless …

    It is more common these days, so as soon as I start to see the behaviour I know things are not going to improve. I start to look for a new job. Then I do as much snooping as possible. From my experience, people who are like this hate other people being the same to them. So that’s what I do. I cut them out of the loop, use their ideas to make me look good to their boss. It really pushes them over the edge.

  3. Youknowthisisfunny

    One time however Dad took a history course where this professor did things the old fashioned way and saw how we were slipping and mentioned even back in the 70s how the current generation was becoming stupider as collages dumbed down testing.

    In his class room he did things the old fashioned way where you actually had to study and know you’re s— before you could pass and you can guess what happened to most of the students who thought they could fool him.

    Like I said that 70s hippy generation who rebelled against the parents of the 50s now is in management positions either not taking economic classes or cheating their way thru them so you can guess what they’ll do when they have power.

  4. Youknowthisisfunny

    This is actually quite funny because my Dad before I was born when to UCLA down in California in the 70s and took chemistry and other science classes to understand how the world works and woke up to the world.

    Now what really gets interesting is while he was in those lab classes he was one of a few that actually did the experiments right to fully understand things yet always got a lower score then most of the colleagues.

    He later found out that most of the colleagues actually fudged their data which many of the professors were in on it yet let them slide anyways.

    Now that generation of students have cheated their way into management positions and high end careers that are sacred to life.

    Even back in the 80s Dad could see where the generation of children were headed and was deeply concerned while all the Liberals were busy partying and having s– without caring about the consequences of it and how it can possibly break apart families if done immaturely.

    But I guess that’s what they want is divorced parents and gay marriage *which isn’t actually marriage and it never used to be called such even by gay people* so I hope they are —— happy!

  5. You can’t fight these bosses. They clearly have psycopathic characteristics. Only one thing you can do: find yourself a new job as fast as possible. The topic of psycopathic leaders has been discussed intensively in the scandinavian countries – esp. Sweden – since ca. 2000.

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