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Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Boss

Turn a distant boss into an interested one.

If you've ever experienced the great shut-out from a passive-aggressive boss, you know how nerve-wracking such treatment can be. And if you've followed the dynamics of the "Terrible Office Tyrant" or "TOT," you can easily picture your boss as a child who doesn't get his way and chooses to ignore you. But you can empower yourself to manage this kind of boss - and create a less stressful, more healthy job environment for yourself. It's a career skill you can take to any job.

Let's first analyze what exactly is going on here. It's one thing to have a toddler cross his arms and refuse to acknowledge you because you've locked away the cookie jar. It's quite another to have a grown adult shun you for no discernible reason with more outwardly sophisticated, workplace mind games.

When a manager treats you like you have the plague, your first natural thought is: "What did I do?" You feel you're in hot water, but don't see any obvious reasons for it. You whip up your trusted arsenal of "tricks" to coax a response from your suddenly distant TOT. But as those fail, your anxiety grows. As the silent treatment goes on, you're increasingly haunted by prospects of a pink slip.

Your elusive TOT isn't necessarily trying to punish you or make you fearful. The problem is that it's not easy to know where you stand. You may feel consciously frozen out, get stared at blankly, or even smiled at in an insincere manner. Yes, it's very possible that your passive-aggressive TOT of a boss may be angry with you - or be aware of some impending bad news, such as a layoff.

But it's also possible that he might simply be overwhelmed, distracted, self-absorbed, or oblivious. Either way, you can take control and be the wise "parent." If you don't take matters into your own hands, you may be headed for a pretty disappointing stretch in your career.

The Coldest Shoulder

In the worst-case scenario, passive-aggressive behavior is a calculated move. Let's face it, it's easier for your TOT than direct confrontation. He just leaves the scene, either physically or through communication channels. It could be that he's angry about your work performance, or about something you said, or an imagined slight. You'll need to figure that out before you can get to repairing the situation.

Countless research indicates that employees prefer that their bosses tell it like it is; show where improvement is needed; and just speak up. One employee talks of a boss who always smiled, but was known as the proverbial "back-stabber." His anger and political maneuvers went on behind the scenes, but during rare meetings, he just ... smiled. She called it "eerie." This is a perfect example of unproductive passive-aggressive behavior fueled by lack of respect for the subordinates.

Some TOTs simply lack good people skills. Try to remember whether there were any earlier signs of this. Those who lack emotional intelligence tend to routinely practice avoidance. They haven't developed the ability to confront uncomfortable situations and find it easier to just tune you out, or worse, blame YOU when things go awry, even though they were unavailable for communication. They may have learned to react this way through childhood, or this may have worked for them in the past in business - or both - so it has become a habit. Regardless, you're left in the dark without a chance to address your concerns.

Dealing with a passive-aggressive boss can be a nightmare. Here are some Do's and Don'ts that will help you with a passive-aggressive TOT of a boss.


Tackle Your TOT. Don't let your boss escape your clutches even one more time. Study his patterns to learn the times he takes a break. Roll a huge potted plant a few feet from the break room door, and hide behind it. Wear camouflage and paint your face green. When he approaches, leap out, arms outstretched, and say, "Heyyy! Gotta question about these invoices." If he tries to push past you, just block the door and every attempt he makes to escape.


Schedule Regular Meetings. Urge your boss to meet with you regularly and explain the benefits from his perspective. Use examples of how it helped on a recent project. Suggest an agenda, frequency (such as once a week), and several possible time slots. Keep the meetings brief and on schedule. Regular meetings eliminate the need to constantly chase your boss down. But to ensure that the meetings actually happen, send a reminder a few hours ahead of time.


Put Your Boss on "Ignore." When your ignores-you-'til-he-needs-you boss approaches, close your eyes, cover your ears tightly, and belt out the old childhood fallback, "La la la la, I can't hear you!" Try it out at the next all company meeting. When your boss asks you for your progress report, wait until you have the attention of the entire team of Big- and Super TOTs. If you can, wait for a Board meeting. Then smile big and run through the routine. When everyone looks shocked, say, "Only joking. I really can hear. I learned that from my boss."


Level with Your TOT. Sit down with your TOT and express your concern and frustration about being ignored. Without pointing fingers, try to find out why she hasn't responded to you. You might discover that her behavior has nothing at all to do with you-she might be under enormous pressure or swamped with work. On the other hand, if she does have issues with your performance, ask for honest feedback so that you can remedy any problems. If she beats around the bush, ask her point-blank what she would do in your situation.


Sing a Sad, Sad Song. Let your boss know how devastated her cold behavior has left you. Deck yourself out in a spangled shirt, cowboy boots, and 10-gallon hat. Croon the saddest country song you know to the team-but rework the lyrics to be about your boss. As your colleagues and the management team gather round, point at your TOT, clutch your chest, fall to your knees, and wail, "I sent her e-mails, I sent her faxes. But the shut-out came like death and taxes!"


Repackage Your Ideas. Study your Terrible Office Tyrant's routines and find new ways to get his attention. Instead of sending long emails marked "urgent," package your messages and reports in a concise, lively format that is appealing to read. Leave enough white space and use bullets. Make your meetings and presentations visually interesting, interactive, and lively. If you can make his work more enjoyable in general, he'll respond to you more quickly.


Consult a Psychic. When you can't figure out why your TOT ducks away from you at every opportunity, invite a mystic into your office. Show the mystic a photo of your boss, some unanswered e-mails that you sent, and a crisp $20 bill. If she finds no answer at first, ask her to summon your TOT's ancestors. You can request that your boss's beloved great-great aunt Lillian haunt your TOT until she finally agrees to meet with you. (This will probably cost you an extra $20.)

Do This . . .

Do Some Detective Work. Try to put yourself in your TOT's shoes, and think about why your boss might need space from you. Ask your colleagues for clues. Have they been having trouble getting your TOT's attention? Do they know of any special issues affecting your boss's behavior? Are other priorities distracting her? You may learn she's overloaded and juggling too many projects to deal with you-or you may confirm that she's ignoring everyone because she hates talking to her team. If the latter is true, keep sleuthing . . . through online job listings.

Ultimately, you have to remember that a "misbehaving" boss is nothing but a spoiled kid - a TOT. Unfortunately, the kid is wearing a grown-up suit and sits behind a grown-up desk, so you can't just slap some sense into him or even threaten with a time-out. You have to be twice the grown-up and see through the childish behavior in order to modify it in your favor. You could be dealing with a temporary slip or a permanent childish trait! Just remember that you do have control. You just have to decide if you're ready to use it.

A "great workplace" takes some great work. Mainly yours.

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