Select Page
The passive aggressive boss – a far from unique workplace challenge. For a while in my twenties, every single manager or boss I had was passive aggressive.

The passive aggressive boss smiles to your face, but then complains about your project progress to coworkers over half-priced apps at Applebees. It’s like you’re back in middle school. Big yikes.

And certainly, we all suffer from passive behavior; it’s not always easy to be assertive.

I’m from the Midwest where being “nice” is literally a culture.

Passive aggressive people are my ancestors. We tremble at the thought of hurting others’ feelings.

The Passive Aggressive Boss – a Quiet Storm

In the workplace, though, I’ve learned it’s just much easier and frankly, more productive to be direct. After all, isn’t it the absolute worst to find out you’ve been failing at your job – during performance review? It’s infuriating to feel like your boss has been hiding things from you, like the fact that he or she is dissatisfied with your performance.

It’s highly likely that you’ve dealt with your fair share of passive-aggressive people throughout your life. Whether it be friends, family, significant others, coworkers—someone at some point in time has given you the cold shoulder minus a reasonable explanation.

Of course, dealing with passive aggression as an employee is a little bit different, considering your boss is someone you should be able to look up to and respect.

In that same respect, as an employee, it’s not your job to psycho-analyze your boss to figure out what makes them tick—and you shouldn’t be treated poorly for their emotional ambiguity.

Unfortunately, you do have to find a way to cope with it. Otherwise, your passive aggressive boss could end up affecting your work or completely ruin your career.

So, if you’ve got a passive aggressive boss making your office a living hell, we’ve got some tips for how to deal with them.

How to Deal With Passive Aggressive Bosses

Passive aggression is defined by a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings without openly communicating them. That means your passive aggressive boss will say one thing but do something else.

While many people that exhibit passive aggressive behavior are unaware of what they’re doing, just as many people are aware—and they do it intentionally.

There are a number of reasons why a person acts passive aggressively, including feelings of resentment, disappointment, fear, insecurity, or being taken for granted.

Ultimately, they just don’t have the emotional maturity to confront their negative feelings directly. Yes, working on your passive aggression can be an act of emotional maturity, maybe something to tackle in the coming year as a personal development goal.

Moreover, none of these reasons have anything to do with you, the employee. Most people don’t even realize it if they are a passive aggressive person. Once you understand that, you can focus on changing the dynamics of your relationship so you’re no longer a target of their passive aggression.

What is a Passive Aggressive Boss Like?

A passive aggressive boss can be really anxiety-inducing. On the surface, a passive aggressive boss will seem “super nice”. Everyone around your boss might tell you he or she seems like an awesome manager. These easygoing traits can make you feel a little bit like your boss is gaslighting you.


photo of female boss with gray hair

Find Your Compassion First

A good way to deal, and perhaps the most important thing to do in this situation is to give your boss or superior the benefit of the doubt. (I know, maturity is hard). That doesn’t mean you should ignore a cold shoulder, however, it does mean you need to consider that your boss is also a human being with a life outside of the office. Your boss might be looking for a way to deal with conflict, but just doesn’t know how.

Remember, passive aggressive behavior usually comes from having low self-esteem and anxiety that may be rooted as far back as childhood issues. So while your boss may be a total jerk on the outside, he or she may be full of self doubt and sadness on the inside.

So, in the spirit of being an evolved employee, try finding a way to see another perspective.

How do you tell if your boss is intimidated by you?

One thing employees sometimes fail to recognize is when their boss is actually intimidated by them. Yes, it happens. When you’re in the individual contributor position it’s easy to think your manager is super confident and has it together.

Remember, though, everyone is human. Maybe your boss is feeling in over her head. Maybe she feels that you are impressive and seeing right through her. Just be aware that you don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. In the case where a boss is intimidated, simply recognizing it and having compassion can really help soften your interactions and build a human bond.

Don’t Retaliate

It’s a natural reflex to strike back once you’ve been hit, metaphorically speaking. However, stooping to your boss’s passive aggressive level won’t fix anything. In fact, mirroring their behavior will only encourage them to do it more.

Or worse, your boss might make things even more difficult for you (hello surprise project with a 24-hour deadline?!)

So, instead of fighting back, practice emotional self-control and meet aggression with discipline. Only display behaviors that you want to see around you. By doing so, you’ll exude emotional maturity and self-respect, which is what those around you will mirror.

Combat Passive Aggressive Behavior with Communication

If your boss’s passive aggressive behavior is constant and making you miserable, you will need to confront the situation in some way, preferably in a thoughtful approach.

This is especially true if their passive aggression involves withholding necessary information from you, making it difficult to do your job—which in turn makes you look bad and it makes them a poor leader.

Of course, before communicating with your boss you need to understand one thing, and that’s the fact that they probably won’t admit that they are the problem. Keeping this in mind, you’ll have to find a way to approach them that won’t paint them in a corner, otherwise they’ll likely become defensive and you’ll never reach a resolution.

So, find a way to communicate with them that you need them to work with you, keeping the focus on the task at hand rather than direct you and I statements. For example, you could pull them aside and say something like, “I’ve been struggling with [insert tasl] and I’m unsure of how to go about it. What can we do to achieve the best results?

Lead the Way

If your boss is passive aggressive when it comes to giving feedback, you’re going to have to be the one to steer the ship. While it may not seem fair to have to lead the way for someone that gets paid more than you, this is something that will help you grow in the long run.

The first thing you want to do here is refer to a specific situation where you truly needed their honest feedback. Then, take things a step further by setting up weekly meetings to discuss your progress on projects and how you can improve.

If you’re proactively seeking out ways to improve the work that you’re accountable for, then they’re accountable for giving you what you require, which is honest feedback.

Start Looking for New Job Opportunities

If you’ve tried all of the above strategies and nothing seems to be working, it may be time to seek new opportunities. It may seem like a good idea at this point to confront your boss and give them an earful about their passive aggressive behavior, but we can assure you it’s not.

Becoming the aggressor only makes you look bad and could hurt your chances of being hired elsewhere if word gets out that you “blew up” on your boss. So, take the high road by finding a place that will value you and treat you with respect.