How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Boss
Since the big talk about citizen liberties started in the western society, somewhere in the 20th century, the aggression paradigms seem to have shifted in the civilized world from active, physical violence to more subtle, but more insidious, forms of passive aggression.
Passive aggression is defined as an indirect, often verbal form of aggressive behavior that is meant to emotionally threaten the victim and destabilize it.
In other words, passive-aggressive people employ all sorts of manners such as emotional blackmail, sarcasm, cynicism to outright slander in order to hurt their victims.
The hurt caused is often the result of the assailant’s behavior which implies that the victim is inferior in some way.
Passive aggression implies that its victim is either stupid, ugly, incompetent, maladapted or misfit in any general sense of the word.
Victims of passive aggression are, amongst other things, manipulated and harassed psychologically which may result in physical maladies as well as in long term psychological damage.
WHERE DOES IT HAPPEN
Passive aggression can take place anywhere where two or more (human) beings are involved in any form of correspondence and communication. It can happen in families, schools and unfortunately your office.
Actually, the offices and workplaces are probably one of the most insidious places to harbor passive-aggressive behavior.
It’s not just because you spend most of your daily time at work, but because work affects all other aspects of your life.
Being a victim of passive-aggressive behavior of your colleagues, not to mention your boss, is a sure way, not only to have your career stunted but to absorb and multiply all that anger and bring it home where it is passed on to ruin the lives of the people you love.
While the most sensitive people to suffer from passive aggression are the little people or the younglings, it’s not easy for adults either.
Especially if your boss is the assailant, the situation can be really tricky.
The ways you can stand up to him or her are somewhat limited since your superintendent is “protected” by the hierarchy of the institution where you work.
It’s not just the institutional hierarchy, but the hierarchy of the whole society in which the given institution takes part, that protects and gives the upper hand to those in higher positions.
The worst form of any aggression is the one which is directed towards someone who can’t defend himself or herself.
We all know that kids, as said, are the most vulnerable, unprotected and sensitive when it comes to that, but being abused in the office can make you feel almost as if you’re a helpless kid again.
Just think of junior and senior employees division and you’ll see that generational clash takes its toll even when you’re adult and not just that, but it’s also the divide between social-economic classes that adds some spice to the situation.
THE NECESSITY FOR UNDERSTANDING AGGRESSION AND ITS CAUSES
To understand how to deal with a passive-aggressive boss, you need to understand why does passive aggression (or any other form of aggression for that matter) take place and what aggression generally is.
It’s going to be a long explanation so bear with us.
If you’re too eager to find out how to deal with a passive-aggressive boss, jump straight to the Ways to deal with passive-aggression (heading down bellow), but note that the more you understand the roots of aggression, the easier it will be for you to root it out.
Aggression can be countered and eradicated only by understanding the place it comes from. If you fight aggression with aggression… well that’s like bombing for peace, right?
WHY DOES AGGRESSION TAKE PLACE
The very purpose of aggressive behavior is to harm in order to hunt/take or in order to protect oneself from the hunter/taker.
Since we’ve partially evolved past the hunter/gatherer way of life, the purpose of aggression these days is to maintain control over someone or to protect your sovereignty.
Since it’s an affect caused by an emotional state, it’s not strictly guided by the sense of purpose nor is it guided by conscious decisions for that matter, but aggression, nevertheless, has an evolutional function.
Since society has its way of thwarting the evolutional functions of life, anger and aggression are often stored when a person feels that he or she is somehow jeopardized by his or her environment.
Animals have it easier when it comes to being aggressive.
They don’t perceive in time nor do they account for the future as far as we know so their aggressive behavior is just a short burst of purposeful action which, when the cause for it disappears, ceases.
Humans, on the other hand, tend to remember both the cause for aggression and the feeling of being jeopardized so they preserve and prolong the whole anger thing way past its expiration date.
So aggression comes from anger and anger comes from fear, but where does fear come from?
Fear comes from any threat to our homeostasis and naturally established bio-functionality (or the survival capacity).
To make things more complicated, fear is not only an emotional reaction to real threats, but it can also stem from our interpretation of what a threat is.
Wherever our interpretation of phenomena takes part, there opens an infinite space for our fancy to go wild… and our judgment is almost always subjectively or socially biased.
Having said that, it’s easy to assume that fear can come from any psycho-physical instability and when drenched in the social context, almost anything can destabilize the psyche. In other words, we are biologically prone to fear.
One of the main reasons for fear is discontent which can come from real psychological or even physical deficiencies, but it can also come from an individual or social opinion on what a deficiency is.
Most of it is related to the Ego as defined by New Age derivations of ancient eastern cultures.
By that definition, the Ego is not who we are, but who we think we are.
It’s an idea about ourselves, an image, a mirage we’ve devised for ourselves to explain ourselves to ourselves. So much “ourselves” in this definition, right?
Since it’s a non-existent thing, based on a mere narrative, the Ego is very fragile and everything and anything that can threaten to destabilize and expose the lie we tell ourselves about ourselves harms the ego.
Needless to say that we, since we identify with the Ego, react with anger and aggression to protect it.
We do it with vigor because we think that we’re protecting ourselves when, in essence, we are protecting a mere fable about ourselves.
Although the Ego isn’t what we really are and in that way isn’t true, it is a real entity or a complex psychological mechanism that directs the tendencies of our behavior.
The emotional and the physical reactions stemming from Ego are as real as they get, even though they’re based in drama.
That’s right, the Ego likes drama because conflict gives it something to talk about.
It gives it context and the fertile soil to grow and tell stories about itself. It stabilizes itself through destabilization of everything around it, as long as the whole drama gives it a role – a sense of identity and a taste of real existence.
One of the many problems with the ego is that it has its expectations. It is entitled and tends to claim a certain social status that it deems appropriate for itself.
Whenever the image of it being privileged by a certain status gets distorted, the ego reacts aggressively.
The other reason for aggressive behavior is childhood or past trauma.
Whether their parents didn’t give them enough love or their peers abused them in school or there was another form of frustration, it doesn’t matter.
Aggressive people get stuck on that frustration and they prolong in by replaying the scenario in their heads over and over so they’re still protecting themselves from the trauma, although what caused it is long gone.
They can also get stuck in compensating for what they lacked in a certain psycho-physically formative period of time.
Having said that, it’s fair to draw a conclusion that, depending on the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, anything and everything can hurt our egos, ’cause everything and anything can cause the story about ourselves to crumble.
Either way, it’s the exact same thing since Dr. Carl Jung has thoroughly read eastern philosophy and has found a way to blend it with the modern science of psychiatry and psychology.
It can even be a desire. Not getting what they want can make people become aggressive.
If they’re passive-aggressive towards you, chances are that you didn’t give them something they wanted from you or expected from you to give.
If you’re an attractive female, for example, your bosses may often think that they’re entitled to your affection, just because they’re your superintendents.
When their expectations aren’t being met, they punish you with passive-aggressive behavior for thwarting their hopes.
If your boss is the same sex (and gender) as you are, he or she may experience some jealousy if you are in any aspect superior to them.
It doesn’t quite match the hierarchy of the company for the subordinates to be superior in any way so if you dare to be better looking or in any way more virtuous than your boss, you might get abused for the sake of sanctioning your misbehavior.
Almost any frustration can be the cause of passive-aggressive behavior so one may only guess what caused it.
If you are the cause of your boss’s frustration, you may get punished by him or her being passive-aggressive, but it can also be the case that you are just collateral damage.
Although the passive form of aggression is the more sinister and articulate one than general aggression, it’s not always that precise. It’s rather an inert discharge of negative energy just like any kind of assailant behavior.
WAYS TO DEAL WITH PASSIVE-AGGRESSION
First, make sure it’s passive-aggression that we’re talking about.
One random outburst of negative energy is not necessarily passive-aggression.
It can be, but it’s not that dangerous so that you have to read on the internet about the ways of countering it.
1. Ask yourself for how long has your boss been behaving that way.
If it’s just a random outburst then it’s ok, but be very mindful about it and don’t let it get repetitive or chronic, because getting used to it and not noticing it anymore may get you stuck in a toxic environment and a toxic relationship without you even realizing it.
2. After you’ve established that it’s passive aggression, thoroughly analyze your previous behavior.
Look for any injustice or hurt you might have caused to your boss, whether professionally or personally, it doesn’t matter.
3. If you can’t think of a reason why your boss would treat you that way, ask him or her for an explanation.
Don’t be aggressive whilst doing it because aggression only breeds more aggression. Be calm and keep your cool. Maintain composure.
Ask in a peaceful tone if you’ve done them any wrong?
Then ask them why they are behaving like that and if they think you deserve it.
4. Make sure you tell them that you don’t enjoy being treated that way.
Actually, go a mile longer and tell them that it’s unpleasant and that it makes you feel really bad.
You can even say that it makes you sad or that it makes you suffer. Inform them that they’re hurting you, just to rule out the possibility of them doing it unaware of the damage they cause.
Make them take responsibility for it.
5. If nothing helps, tell them that you won’t put up with it any longer.
Of course, here comes the question of what will/can you do about it. There are some things that you can always do:
- Seek help from someone in power. These days, the Equality Act passed in 2000 protects you from mobbing and similar bullying at work. Look for the institutions that enforce the law and seek the help of an attorney. You can also seek help from your HR department and ask managers to arbitrate and well… manage.
- Employ direct verbal aggression countermeasures to take them out on the open field where you just might win. Passive-aggressive people sometimes opt for a passive option because they’re smarter and more subtle, but they often opt for passive aggression because they’re actually frightened of direct verbal conflict.
- Fight fire with fire, but only if you have the bigger gun, so to speak. People who aren’t aggressive by nature are often caught by surprise with sarcasm, cynicism, and others being mean to them for no reason. They often just freeze and shut up because they don’t know how to react to mordacity and plain stupidity of sarcasm.
Sometimes stupid people can only understand stupidity so you have to fight them on their ground.
There is that Mark Twain’s quote though… If you don’t want to listen to Mark Twain, however, here’s how you can be… unwise and blunt.
When people are sarcastic and you want to fight fire with fire, go with something like this: “Sarcasm, huh? That’s new.” It’s like meta-sarcasm. Sarcasm on the subject of being sarcastic.
You can even aim for the soft spots like: “Why are you so bitter? Did you mommy not give you enough love?”
Improvise on the matter with: “Daddy didn’t want you, huh?”
Do that until you see that you hit a nerve then drill on until you destroy them. Kidding… Or not… It’s up to you.
Our advice is to listen to Mark Twain though. This is not the best way of dealing with passive-aggression, especially not when it’s your boss that you’re dealing with.
- Remove yourself from their presence. Make sure it’s not running out of fear of conflict because that has its way of becoming a handicap. Make it a tactical retreat.
- Completely ignore them. The keyword here is “completely”. Not a word. Not a movement. Not a thought about what they’re saying or doing. Try to be ignorant and completely passive both externally and internally. Simply don’t pay attention to it. It’s the hardest, but the best counter-measurement ever.
ANCIENT REMEDIES FOR AGGRESSION
It seems that society politically started addressing the problem of aggression and its insidious shadow of passivity, only recently.
It’s only after the WW2 that society came to address the question of aggression whether it’s national, social, racial, sexual, gender-based or based in status differences, individual, or due to the generational gap, etc.
However, the solution to the problem is not a 20th-century product nor is it a modern invention for that matter.
It stems from religious, philosophical and spiritual teachings of different ancient cultures from around the world.
Namely, Buddha and Jesus as the most popular and possibly best advocates of peace, love, and forgiveness have influenced our modern-day culture, but chances are that harmony and peace have been preached about even before their time.
However, they have narrowed it down and refined the cure so that you don’t get better only if you don’t want to take it. They made it simple.
Do not confuse “simple” with “easy” though. It’s as hard as it gets, but at least it’s not complicated. So what is it?
Simply forgive. Let it go. Drop it like it’s hot.
They didn’t have words for psychology, psychiatry, sociology, biology, etc. They didn’t have the need for them. Somehow they got to the root of it by themselves.
So here is the basis of the philosophy summed up in a few simple sayings:
Fire breeds fire and aggression breeds aggression. You can fight fire with fire, but a scorched earth remains.
You burned everything even if you put it out. In other words, if you’re not a fan of Christianity, here’s a saying for you:
“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
If you’re anti-religious then consider a paradox of killing all the killers in the world.
Even when you do it, there’s one killer left unless you kill yourself too. Makes you wanna get baptized, huh?
The moral of the story is that quid pro quo reasoning doesn’t get us anywhere.
The economy of human relationships based on “this for that” is bound to fail and ravage us all.
The only way to stop the reproductive cycle of aggression and negativity is to forgive and let it go.
As Jesus would say: Turn the other cheek.
You’re not doing it because you’re a coward or because you’re weak.
That’s not the reason to turn the other cheek. You do it in order to save yourself, your assailant and the world of the exponential growth of negativity.
You do it because you’re actually stronger and you’re fighting a much tougher opponent than the one who slapped you.
You’re fighting yourself. You’re fighting a battle to not give in to your ego, your pride, and your vanity.
How to forgive and let go
The only way to do it is to try and understand your assailant. The only way not to become an assailant yourself is to rise above him. If you react in the same manner he acts, you’ve become like him, so even if he doesn’t win, what he is essentially will.
When you understand that all his aggression comes from a sad and a weak place in him, you start empathizing with him instead of judging him and hating him for the damage he inflicted.
You don’t react to him, you react to what caused him to behave like that and how do we react to sadness? With sadness and empathy.
You take pity on the whole plethora of causes for such behavior.
If you’re gonna get angry, get angry with what caused your boss to behave like an idiot, don’t get angry with him for being one.
Turning the other cheek is neither a spiteful nor a crazy act. It’s just refusing to respond to aggression, but seeing through it. It’s understanding the whole cycle and acting accordingly.
When you see the bigger picture and the reasons behind people’s actions, you put your blame elsewhere or better yet, the blame you put disperses over the width of the frame. You just turn away from it and get away from it. Because it’s bad.
There’s no better way of pointing out the inadequacy of the assailant’s behavior and the futility of his actions. Remember that they want conflict.
Their Ego needs the drama to provide a role for it to play and to reinstate its identity through that role.
Don’t give them what they want or what their Ego wants.
Don’t give them conflict.
Give them what they need instead and that’s peace. In order to do that, you yourself must be peaceful.
Remember that they feel agitated because their sense of self is threatened by something. Remember that they already suffer. Don’t add oil to the fire. You’ll both get burned.
Don’t respond to their Ego
It’s their Ego trying to communicate with yours asking for confirmation.
Even when they fight, Egos work together. They play a drama in which they mutually reassure each other of their existence.
Instead of reacting, try to understand them.
Silence is golden. Instead of speaking, listen to them without reacting or internally criticizing their statements.
Try to understand the causes of their behavior. Don’t be afraid, it’s not the end of the world even if you get offended or even slapped. Just breathe and take it easy. Easy does it.
It’s not to say that you shouldn’t know how to take care of yourself and protect yourself.
This IS protecting yourself and protecting your “opponent” which demonstrates a higher level of skill.
Imagine that a 4-year-old kid starts challenging you to a fight and kicking you.
Do you respond to a challenge? No. You don’t even feel challenged.
Regard the passive-aggressive assailants as children because they do demonstrate an infantile behavior.
It’s just punishing others and emotionally blackmailing them and threatening them because they didn’t get what they want. Outsmart those silly egoistic mechanisms of behavior.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT PASSIVE AGGRESSION: UNDERSTANDING KARMA OR THE LAW OF ACTION AND REACTION
There’s a higher mechanism at play that could be described as the law of karma.
If that sounds to mumbo-jumbo to you, then just think of Newtonian law of action and reaction.
After all, karma doesn’t have to imply some mystic force that punishes people for their sins.
Karma literally means action or doing. It means that you reap what you sow because your action in it holds both its cause and the effect.
It is by itself a punishment or a reward. In other words, your doing, if negative, becomes your undoing. Everything that happens to you is your doing.
If you take that into consideration, you have a sense that all will be resolved.
There’s no need for you to react or force a reaction because the reaction will be provided by the system of existence itself.
It will find a way to account for each doing just like water perfectly accepts and reflects every shape that it meets and greets.
Some people consider this philosophy too nihilistic and passive.
Similar to the philosophy of Christianity where Heaven will eventually account for everything and “give everyone their due”, karma can make you a fatalist which would cause you to deny your own willpower and become passive.
However, leaving things to karma doesn’t mean that you negate your own consciousness or willpower, it means that you bring them to harmony with the universal flow of doing.
It’s not thinking that you’re powerless but simply admitting that you don’t control everything in this universe and that there’s no need for you to act as if you do.
Many things in life take care by themselves in their own natural course so sit back, relax and let them unfold without giving them too much thought because if you do, you’ll just waste your time and your nerves.
It’s just as the wisdom of Zen rephrased by Coelho puts it, insults are like gifts.
If you don’t take them (react to them) insults get shipped back to the sender.
Of course, Zen also says that it’s better to be a warrior in the garden than a gardener at war so be careful not to let the zealous passivity become your excuse for not standing up for yourself and becoming weak.
Make sure that everything you do doesn’t come from the place of fear or from the place of convictions, but from the place of wisdom and intuition.
WHAT PSYCHOLOGY 1O1 TEACHES US
If you’re not prone to philosophy and deep analysis and you want a quick fix instead, here’s what science of positive psychology says about the way you should deal with passive-aggressive behavior, whoever your assailant might be:
1. Recognize passive-aggressive behavior patterns such as:
- Sarcastic and cynical comments – No need to explain these ones.
- Incoherence between verbal and non-verbal reactions to your presence – Their face might give them off or vice versa – they may smile as they insult you. They sometimes lack the confidence to say “no” to others so they keep pleasing them at their own expense. Then they try to compensate for it by punishing others with “indirect” anger and negativity pointed at them.
If you confront them about it they may act as if you’re the one making the drama for no reason. Thy use lies and manipulation so watch out.
- General logical or discursive incoherence – while this happens rarely, passive-aggressive narcissists are known to sometimes plead insanity in order to avoid the exposure of their aggression and culpability. Watch out for ignoratio elenchi or a straw man
- Being too silent, too secretive and too discrete – People use this one to keep others in the state of anxiety and uncertainty as they are forced to interpret the assailant’s silence.
- Thriving on your mistakes – there, I told you so and other pleasant comments. Passive-aggressive people are also playing the role of a critic, coach or a preacher.
- Presenting themselves as victims – assailants do this to instill a sense of blame and indebtedness in their victims.
- Blaming others for their frustrations – simply put they’re always someone’s or something’s victims and they never take responsibility.
- Gossiping and lying – is there a need to explain this one?
- Ignoring – as a form of emotional blackmail meant to hurt you by implying that you’re not worthy of someone’s attention. Enter silent treatments…
- Not honoring their words or deals made with others – this one is most commonly followed by a myriad of excuses. Never taking responsibility for their mistakes is a trademark of passive-aggressive people. E.G. Passive-aggressive people are ALWAYS LATE.
- Evasive behavior and avoidance – Since some of passive-aggressive assailants like keeping the lines open, but they don’t like engaging in a relationship, they seem to engage in a correspondence, but then they fail to act accordingly, they avoid confronting, they avoid responding, they don’t pick up or answer messages, rather than telling you that they don’t want to engage…
They do that because they’re afraid of people’s negative reactions. They prefer to be in the grace of others, but they fail to commit and do their part of the correspondence.
They are never sincere about it and like to keep you as a reserve for when they become needy so they keep stalling on delivering the goods.
- Clinging and being possessive whilst pleading dependence – They’re too scared to be alone, but their own dependence is the cause of frustration for them so they keep blaming you for not being able to stand you whilst not being able to bear losing you.
2. React accordingly by:
- Asking them if you ever did something to cause them harm. Then ask why are they causing you harm.
- Holding them accountable – Don’t be a people-pleaser. Stop making excuses for their aggressive behavior. Don’t apologize for their mistakes unless you did something wrong! Be upfront and when they try to place the blame on you, stand your ground.
- Putting your needs first – Passive-aggressive people like manipulating or forcing and blackmailing people into putting their needs first. Don’t let them do that to you.
- Dropping the game – Their stored and suppressed anger seeks a partner to play with. They’re just big neurotic and narcissistic babies angry at the world because no one will play with them. Play, but don’t fight. Don’t let the whole thing get under your skin. Maintain a positive attitude at all times. Know who you are and what you’re worth and don’t let them instill doubt in you.
- Confronting the issue – Bring the whole story about their behavior out into the open. Assertive behavior means standing up for yourself, but calmly, without intentionally trying to hurt the assailant. Assertion is not a reactive, nor passive but a proactive form of behavior. Tell them that you think they’re abusive, explain to them why and explain that you won’t put up with it. Don’t be too lenient.
Set your limits and don’t back down. Remember, in its essence, dealing with a passive-aggressive person is a power struggle. Be wise, don’t be blunt. But don’t be weak either.
- Remembering the causes for their behavior and staying calm – aggressive people are usually aggressive because they’ve stored up fear and anger caused by other aggressors they didn’t stand up to. Help alleviate their fear.
The way to deal with a passive-aggressive boss is the same as dealing with any other passive-aggressive assailant out there.
Read this article over and over and constantly remind yourself of ways to outsmart passive-aggressive behavior. There are only three ways to respond:
To burst out into aggression, to avoid the situation, to try to escape and suppress the reaction which will cause you to become passive-aggressive towards people around you or to practice being assertive which is, without a doubt, the hardest and the best way possible to address the situation.
Each one of us is responsible for taking care of himself or herself. Each one of us should protect themselves from abusive behavior so as to break the cycle of abuse.
Aggression tends to spread like a virus and it can develop from an individual disposition to a social disposition.
Just think of how feminism stood up against abuse and exploitation of women but mutated into a passive-aggressive insisting on antagonizing everything and everyone, even its own fractions in order to indirectly impose an ideology that mutated from feminism into a form of fascism.
Same happened with communism and all the other ideologies that came from emotional reactions to long-term oppression.
When you think of it, it’s your social and humanistic responsibility to recognize and root out any form of aggression, whether it’s coming from your loved ones, your bosses or perhaps even yourself.
All of us should be mindful and confront the tyranny of our psychopathological dispositions which, by the inertia of neurosis, lead us to a certain and utter failure in life… as individuals, companies, and societies.
Dealing with mental and psychological hygiene is a matter of economy and entrepreneurship as well. It’s not just something to leave to your HR manager.
It’s something all of us should manage equally, both as individuals and as a collective.
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