4 Signs That a Boss Has a Passive-Aggressive Leadership Style
To avoid being manipulated, watch out for these clues.
Posted August 1, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
The leadership style of the leaders of a company or other organization can have a significant impact on workplace climate, employee behavior and morale, the cost and quality of the organization’s products or services, and other reliable predictors of success.
A leadership style is a stable tendency to think, feel and behave in certain characteristic ways while functioning in a leadership position (say, a company director, the chair of a college committee, or the headmaster of a school). Unsuccessful leadership styles can lead to lowered employee morale, miscommunication, decreased productivity, workplace bullying, and employee burnout and stress.
The perhaps best known unsuccessful leadership styles are the authoritarian (or “autocratic”) and the laissez-faire leadership styles. Whereas a person with an authoritarian leadership style will tend to lead by assuming control over all decisions while not soliciting input from or taking the advice of others in the organization, someone with a laissez-faire leadership style will tend to take charge by taking a passive stance and leaving it to employees to make their own decisions and judgments and find their own solutions to problems.
One of the lesser-known leadership styles is the passive-aggressive (or “negativistic”) leadership style. Like passive-aggressive individuals more generally, passive-aggressive leaders behave in ways that subtly reflect their negative or aggressive thoughts and feelings. They do so to protect themselves or to cause harm to others. But because of their unique position, the passive-aggressive behaviors of leaders may not look anything like the behaviors of say, a passive-aggressive partner or friend. Here are four common characteristics of passive-aggressive leaders.
1. Speaking in Codes
Do you ever get the feeling that you never really know what your boss requires of you or whether you are living up to her expectations? If your answer is "yes," this could be because your boss—if she even bothers communicating with you—engages in indirect communication as a way to protect herself or hurt you.
An excellent example of verbal indirectness comes from the movie The Social Network, where young Mark Zuckerberg explains to his girlfriend Erika—who is accusing him of being obsessed with Final Clubs—that there is a difference between being obsessed and being motivated. Erika replies sardonically, “Yes, there is.” "See, you do speak in codes,” young Zuckerberg then declares.
Sarcasm is far from the only kind of verbal indirectness. The philosopher Paul Grice, who became famous for his work on indirect communication, or “conversational implicature,” has offered a theory of how we ordinarily derive indirect messages from what is explicitly said.
Say you are a truck driver trying to get over the continental divide during a blizzard. On the phone, your spouse asks you “How is the weather?”, to which you respond “Oh, it’s lovely.” This is irony, or the act of playfully saying the opposite of what you mean. Irony is a paradigm case of implicature.
In the envisaged case, you know that your spouse isn't trying to communicate that she thinks the weather is lovely. Rather, by explicitly claiming that the weather is lovely, she intends to tell you in a playful way that it is terrible. According to Grice, you know she is trying to tell you the opposite of what she is explicitly claiming, because if she were really trying to tell you that the weather is lovely in the midst of a blizzard, she would be lying to you. But she doesn't have reason any good reason to lie to you, so the purpose of her explicit claim must be to state the opposite but doing so in a playful manner.
Although Grice was talking about our ability to use "inference" to figure out what is implicated by an utterance, we all know from experience that it takes nearly no effort to figure out what people mean when they are ironic—at least not when they master the art of irony. The verbal indirectness that's characteristic of passively aggressiveness, by contrast, doesn't effortlessly let you figure out what the intended message is. Rather than being effortless, the verbal indirectness of passive-aggressive people literally requires interpretation and guesswork, yet even if you are doing your very best to try to figure out the hidden message, you will always have some residual uncertainty about what (if anything) the passive-aggressive person was in fact trying to communicate.
The verbal indirectness deployed by passive-aggressive leaders can also take the form of a facial expression, a certain tone of voice, or a gesture. Say your boss disapproves of your bad habit of clicking your pen while working, but instead of telling you directly, she frequently sighs heavily or glares at you. Since you aren't aware that you are constantly clicking your pen while working, you are left unsure about what behavior of yours makes her irritated, or whether her sighs and glares even have anything to do with you.
Hyper-conforming is a common strategy deployed by passive-aggressive leaders to avoid taking action—especially action that is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
Say you are taking an issue to your boss, suggesting a simple, effective administrative change that would resolve it. After explaining the issue and the administrative change that would effectively address it, your boss replies that the suggested administrative change goes against how things have always been done in the company.
As your boss often avoids taking action, you are not terribly surprised by this answer. Indeed, whenever someone makes a suggestion to him, it’s almost guaranteed that it will be met with a response along the lines of “This is how it has always been done,” “The rules clearly say …,” “Listen, if it were up to me, ….,” “I didn’t make the rules,” or “I could take it higher up, but trust me, it wouldn’t lead anywhere.”
The passive-aggressive leadership style here shows up in the form of a tactic for avoiding action, viz. the tactic of interpreting the rules or norms of your workplace much more strictly than the situation calls for.
3. Passing the Buck
There are many other tactics that passive-aggressive leaders rely on to avoid taking action. Another tactic is to pass the buck to someone else when issues are brought to her attention. She will likely evade these issues, saying things like “This is not my turf,” “That’s not my job. Talk to HR,” “I am too busy to think this through right now, but as soon as …,” or “You know what? You should talk to Alice. She dealt with the same issue last year.”
When a person in a leadership position too often passes the buck to someone else, this is an almost telltale sign that she has a passive-aggressive leadership style.
Another way that action avoidance can show up in passive-aggressive leaders is in the form of being extremely resistant to change and being in denial about it. As one frustrated employee reported: “It took me six years to make my boss make one obvious administrative change. It took her two days to deny that she had ever resisted change” (Terkel, 1974).
The fourth characteristic of passive-aggressive leaders is a tendency to avoid accepting accountability for their mistakes, even when it is obvious to everyone else that they are responsible for messing up.
Say your boss makes a costly mistake that would reflect very badly on him if he accepted responsibility. Rather than taking the blame and trying to remedy the situation, he tells his own boss that his latest hire insisted that she was able to complete the task but apparently wasn't, as she messed up rather terribly.
When your coworker is laid off a few days later, you know it's because your boss scapegoated her. It's obvious to anyone working under him. Yet you don't have what it would take to prove it to people higher up in the organization.
Here, accountability, blame and punishment are purposely avoided by making someone else take the fall for what is the passive-aggressive leader's own fault. But passive-aggressive leaders may also avoid taking responsibility by "blaming" non-living entities like printers or a lack of resources, or by making up stories about a family emergency. If this sounds like your boss, that’s a strong sign that he or she may have a passive-aggressive leadership style.
Ashforth, Blake E & Lee, Raymond T. (1990) "Defensive Behavior in Organizations: A Preliminary Model" Human Relations, 43, 7: 621-648.
Johnson, Nora J. & Klee, Thomas, (2007). "Passive-Aggressive Behavior and Leadership Styles in Organizations" Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 14, 2, pp. 130-142.
Millon, Theordore. (1993) "Negativistic (Passive-Aggressive) Personality Disorder." Journal of Personality Disorders 7, 1: 78-85.
Terkel, S. (1974). Working. New York: Avon.