Are You Dealing With a Passive-Aggressive Boss? Try These Heart-Led Leadership Tips

a woman frustrated at work

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Sara London for Hive
Sara London for Hive
April 14, 2024 at 6:5PM UTC
Are you getting left out of email chains, receiving snide Slack messages, or being ignored in meetings? Maybe you have a passive-aggressive boss. Read on to learn some advice on tackling these managers with heart-led leadership from Mark C. Crowley, author of Lead From The Heart.

Is my boss passive-aggressive?

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if your boss is passive-aggressive or just plain aggressive. And Crowley says that it can take a while to realize how your boss is acting – he would know, as it happened to him.
“I once worked for a passive-aggressive boss and didn’t immediately realize it,” Crowley said. “Ultimately, someone who knew us both pointed [it] out, and the pieces fell into place.”
“I suddenly realized he rarely gave me credit for my successes, praised others for accomplishing far less, avoided giving me direct support on important decisions, and held back information.”
Crowley says these traits are the hallmarks of passive aggression; rather than aggression, in which someone is lashing out, passive-aggressive bosses intentionally withhold communications to hinder an employee.
“When managers are passive-aggressive, they tend to be more controlling, less appreciative, and indirect in their communication,” he adds. “What people want today is a boss who’s sufficiently self-secure, generous with praise, clear in their direction, and one with whom they feel trust. Passive-aggressive bosses are the opposite of this.”

Where does passive aggression come from?

Your passive-aggressive boss, Crowley says, isn’t just a jerk because they don’t like you. Passive aggression has deeper psychological roots that are more about your boss than they are about anyone else’s behavior.
“Passive-aggressive behavior is almost always an unconscious response to feelings of insecurity,” Crowley says. “Ironically, managers who infrequently praise their employees, or consistently favor some people over others, end up making many workers feel insecure – or worse – threatened by the success of others on their team.”

Passive aggressiveness in the hybrid workplace.

In remote and hybrid workplaces, passive-aggressive behavior can become a team norm, Crowley says. When managers don’t frequently connect with their employees, there’s more room for anger and frustrations to emerge. And when managers only use digital tools to update others, a lot can get lost in the mix – even with the most organized bosses.
“In the absence of regular communication with their boss, it’s natural for people to hallucinate that other teammates are getting all the attention, recognition, and opportunities,” Crowley says. “Fearing that they’re being excluded and are less in favor with their boss, passive-aggressive behavior is born.”
Crowley also notes that passive-aggressive behavior is more common among higher ranks from his personal experience, as praise becomes infrequent and even general feedback is rare.
“Once people make it to higher level positions, the inclination to be generous advocates of others gets diminished,” Crowley says. “Companies that constantly change out senior-ranking leaders engender that behavior because it creates fear.”

Fighting passive aggressiveness with heart-led leadership.

Crowley notes that one of the best ways to combat a passive-aggressive boss is through something called heart-led leadership, in which an employee is empathetic and understanding to those below them and around them.
“The term “heart-led leadership” is now in HR’s common lexicon but probably has 100 different interpretations for every 100 people you ask,” Crowley says. “Most people believe it’s a metaphor for being a more supportive, kind, or decent boss. And while that’s a minimal understanding, those descriptors still strike many managers as being “nice-to-haves” rather than essential leadership qualities.”
Crowley adds that heart-led leadership isn’t just about being nice – it’s an integral part of everyone’s biology, whether we know it or not.
“Emerging science shows that the human heart and brain are connected through the vagus nerve, with the heart sending more signals to the brain than the brain sends back. The net effect is that human beings are not as rational as we’ve always believed, and up to 95% of the decisions we make every day are driven by feelings and emotions.”
Crowley says this explains a passive-aggressive boss whose reactions are more informed by emotion than logic.
“That means employee engagement is a decision made by the heart – and managers who want to drive the greatest loyalty, commitment, and productivity need to intentionally focus on how their employees feel.”

Managing with heart-led leadership.

Crowley adds that human beings are hard-wired to thrive on positive emotions and that even if you’re not in a management role, it’s possible to use heart-led leadership on your manager to improve your relationship with them.
“Being generous and caring with one’s boss generally leads to bosses looking out for us,” Crowley notes. “We reap what we sow.

Heart-led tips for a passive-aggressive boss.

Lastly, Crowley has some advice for those dealing with a passive-aggressive boss.

1. “Avoid directly confronting a passive-aggressive boss.”

If you directly confront a passive-aggressive boss, it could lead to a blow-up, as your boss isn’t going to readily admit that they’ve been treating you differently than others. As behaviors pop up, you can try to mitigate them as much as possible, but don’t talk about your manager’s behavior outright unless you’re ready for the behavior to get worse.

2. “Build their trust by complimenting them (sincerely) and by sharing credit with them on successes you have.”

Treat others as you wish to be treated – even your passive-aggressive boss. By being authentic and giving them praise, they’ll internalize those positive feelings. And with a little time and patience, a passive-aggressive boss could eventually relay those feelings back to you.

3. “When you make someone feel valued, cared for, emotionally and psychologically safe – and that they matter – the insecurity that motivates passive-aggressive behavior is fixed.”

Lastly, remember that passive aggressiveness comes from a place of insecurity, and those who feel the need to isolate or put down others really have an issue with feeling isolated or putting themselves down. Be kind and emotionally available to your passive-aggressive boss, even if it’s difficult and feels like a one-way street.
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This article originally appeared in Hive — the world's first democratically built productivity platform. Learn more at Hive.com.

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