How to spot and deal with a Passive-Agressive Manager



I recently contributed to an article on the Institute of Leadership & Management’s website on this subject.  Here is my complete piece on this particular challenge.

In Performance Management, you frequently hear the term “no surprises” meaning that Managers should give constructive feedback as and when it happens. In reality, the way many of us learn that something isn’t right is by your Manager’s passive-aggressive behaviour. This can be recognised by their avoiding you or a sudden coolness in attitude without any explanation. Often you hear comments they have made about you to someone else. Unfortunately, this behaviour can be seen in women leaders who have been brought up being told expressing emotion was bad behaviour. More generally it relates to the Manager’s own sense of insecurity and lack of confidence in the role. There can be more extreme examples. I have heard of one Manager who downgraded the performance potential of someone in their team without mentioning it to them and, when challenged, denied they had done so, re-confirming their belief in their potential.

How can you spot if your Manager is a passive-aggressive type? Here are some passive-aggressive behaviours:-

  • Taking away responsibilities without telling you. You find out by learning someone else has been asked to do the same task.
  • Ignoring your suggestions in meetings and then congratulating someone else for the comment or idea.
  • The Manager takes full credit for the work and presents it themselves, not allowing the person to be recognised for their contribution or introduced to senior leaders.
  • Doesn’t share information or knowledge believing “knowledge is power”
  • Makes fun of someone or criticises them in front of others

How can you deal with a Passive-Aggressive Manager?

  1. First check that it doesn’t relate to your performance. If you don’t trust your Manager to give honest feedback or any feedback, ask your peers and other Managers for their opinions.
  2. Have a meeting to set clear expectations and goals with your Manager. Ask them for their view of “what good looks like” for someone in your role. Then confirm by saying “So, if I do this…… this time……” you will agree that I am successful? Then follow up in writing (putting read receipt on the email if at all possible).
  3. Remain professional, ask yourself what is the outcome I want from this and how can I go about getting it? This may mean facing up to challenging their behaviour rather than trying to work around them.
  4. Seek supporters and champions. Keep the conversation rational pointing out that the Manager is not being “the Manager they could be” and refer to the impact they are having.   Ask others for their experiences, views and suggestions. If you don’t raise the issue, you may find you are penalised if it comes to a future rift. At the least, it allows you to share your concerns so that you don’t feel alone. It could also provide allies.

 Pros and Cons

If your passive-aggressive Manager behaves this way due to feelings of insecurity, having a frank and open discussion could start to build trust and develop the relationship. Again, addressing the issue will demonstrate your professionalism, integrity and courage, highlighting your strengths within the organisation.

The negative aspects are that if you don’t address this behaviour, it could lead to unmanageable stress for you. Your future prospects may be hindered or damaged by their actions and you may need to seek another Manager to progress further.

 What have your experiences been?  How did you manage?  What were the results?  What have you learnt?


About RosemaryCC

Leadership Coach and Management Consultant helping you to clarify your goals and achieve success in your career or business. Also founder of Highflyingdivas and the Leadership Forum
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