By Linnda Durre, Ph.D., Author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace – Protect Yourself Against Co-workers Bosses and Work Environments That Poison Your Day published by McGraw Hill, February 19, 2010.
As a business and corporate consultant and psychotherapist, I’ve analyzed and worked with many difficult bosses over the years. In order to cope and deal with them, you need to know why they act the way they do and how best to deal with them, in order to earn their respect, get things accomplished, and preserve your sanity.
In my twice-monthly column, I will help you cope with a different type of boss, whether male or female. The three previous ones are: Dick the Dictator, Bashia the Backstabber, Sewell the Sexual Harasser and Carl the Control Freak. This week, let’s take another one of the most frequently complained about types – Paula the Passive Aggressive.
Paula is Passive Aggressive—which means she does aggressive, nasty acts in a passive manner. Her behavior is sneaky, devious, and deliberate, but she pretends that she “forgot,” insists that she innocent, and that she’s without guile. Don’t be fooled by the innocent façade. She is notorious for not getting mad but getting even. She will silently plot to avenge the slightest slight against her, she will get you where you are most vulnerable, and she’ll do it at the worst time in front of people you want to impress. Paula may be sweet to your face, but she does nasty things to you behind your back or even to your face, like “forgetting” to tell you that you had an important call or that the urgent overnight delivery you’ve been waiting for has been sitting on her desk for four hours. That is passive aggressive behavior.
Passive aggressives can be deceitful, malicious, paranoid, vicious, and pure evil – deliberate and methodical in their plotting to thwart you, resist your questions, power, and/or control. They do this to avoid you, circumvent your authority, restrictions, and demands. They can also be clueless, totally out of touch with their motivations, and unaware of their behavior. Their passive aggressiveness is so entrenched that for them it’s just SOP – Standard Operating Procedure. It’s in their bone marrow. How does a fish know it’s in water? It’s part of who they are.
They can deliberately and consciously scheme, so when you confront them, they turn into the pathological liars they can be, and they will usually deny it or protest that they’re innocent. If they are unconsciously passive aggressive, you must bring it to their attention, although they’ll deny it as well. Either type is equally frustrating to deal with. When you make them aware of it, they can’t hide from it any more and it plants the seed of introspection so they can “own” that they do it. That takes insight, maturity, and wisdom.Then they can change their toxic behavior and make better choices.
Remember, passive aggressiveness used wisely and done well can be very powerful and highly effective, like in Gandhi’s passive-resistance and non-violent tactics to gain self-rule for India, or in the anti-war movement during the Viet Nam era, or with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lunch counter sit-ins and the bus boycott. It works!
Most of the time, however, passive aggressiveness is used to drive other people crazy. You must vigilantly guard against Paula the Passive Aggressive and call process shots on her constantly. Describe her behavior to her and give her examples. Document everything with emails, phone logs, and letters, cc’ing them to your boss and the HR department. Always keep a file and lock a separate copy away in your safety deposit box.
One of the best books ever written on this topic is entitled, Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man: Coping with Hidden Aggression – From the Bedroom to the Boardroom by Scott Wetzler who has a Ph.D. I spoke with Dr. Wetzler once on the telephone and wanted to have him on my show, “Ask the Family Therapist,” on America’s Health Network, which was associated with the Mayo Clinic and aired from Universal Studios in Orlando. His book is brilliant in detailing the frustration, anguish, and rage that passive-aggressives cause in others. So whether it’s a man or a woman, and whether they’re doing it deliberately or unconsciously, they are still very difficult to work with.
Paula is a very angry person inside and usually had controlling, rigid, and/or self righteous parents who told her that anger wasn’t “nice” or “ladylike,” which could have been reinforced by her teachers, religion, and even friends. So in order to remain sane and “calm”, she has taken her anger underground and done vengeful things to get back at people in passive ways. She needs to be confronted about this behavior because she thinks you can’t see it, can’t tell, or don’t know it when it’s happening and she does something nasty. When you do confront Paula, she will usually deny that she is angry, sometimes sugar-coating and smiling, pretending everything is just fine. You sense that she is emotionally dishonest and/or totally out of touch with their feelings.
You must inform Paula that you’d rather have her voice her discontent directly to you than rather than sabotage you. Give her the space to be assertive, which may be scary for her, given her programming that it’s “not nice,” “rude,” or “impolite.” When you allow her to express her anger in a safe environment with no repercussions, she hopefully will feel relaxed and won’t stonewall you, If however, you yell at her, snap or get defensive, she will shut down again and feel even more betrayed, so give her a wide space to express her anger. Refrain from giving her double messages. Practice what psychologist Carl Rogers’ called, “Active Listening” with her when she talks to you, paraphrasing her statements and feelings back to her, so she knows you understand her and what she is saying. She will feel emotionally safer and can learn to be more open with you then.
Paula may also have somaticized her anger and may have migraines, headaches, ulcers, kidney stones, gall stones, colitis, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), backaches, neck aches, or some other ailments where her anger has lodged in her body. Paula should take at least one intensive all day or all weekend workshop in assertiveness training. She should listen to and read self-help CD’s and books about assertiveness as possible. She must learn that anger is a normal emotion and deal with it in an assertive, clear manner and not somaticize it or take it out on other people in passive aggressive ways. If she takes your advice, she will be incredibly grateful to you for freeing her from her own emotional prison.
“Paula, I know that you’re a very competent person and I appreciate that about you. I see that sometimes you are angry or upset, but you never admit it or even discuss it. It seems to me that you’re not in touch with those emotions, so they go underground and you repress them. Then you become very passive aggressive – which means you do nasty things in a passive manner, and it comes out in revenge or payback. I never know what I’ve done to offend you, yet I’m being punished for it. An example is when you didn’t tell me the overnight package had arrived and you knew that I was expecting it because it was important to finishing my report. I told you several times to tell me when it came in, and yet you didn’t. I’d like to know why. What have I ever done to hurt you or make you mad? Please tell me. I recommend that you take a course in assertiveness training, listen to CD’s, and read as many books about it as possible. You need to learn that anger is a normal emotion and how to deal with it in an assertive, clear manner and not somaticize it or take it out on other people in passive aggressive ways, like you have done with me. If you’re annoyed or angry at me, please tell me directly what I did, so we can have a discussion about it and resolve it. Perhaps when you were growing up, you were told that being angry wasn’t ‘ladylike’ or ‘nice.’ You can voice your irritation with me in an honest, direct way. I’m OK with that. I’d like to work cooperatively together with you and I hope we can do that because you’re a competent person. I hope we can work well together based on honesty and openness. Thanks so much for listening and I’d like to hear your response.”
–Linnda Durré, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, business consultant, corporate trainer, national speaker, and columnist. She has hosted and co-produced two live call-in TV shows, including “Ask The Family Therapist” on America’s Health Network, which was associated with Mayo Clinic and aired from Universal Studios Orlando. She is the author of “Surviving The Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against Co-Workers, Bosses, and Work Environments That Poison Your Day” (2010 – McGraw-Hill). www.survivingthetoxicworkplace.com She has been interviewed on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and O’Reilly (twice), and the national and/or local news on ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS, Fox and CW. She has written for Forbes, Orlando Business Journal, and American Cities Business Journals. She’s been interviewed and/or quoted by Investors Business Daily, USA Today, NY Times, LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, and others. For more information about her consulting or speaking, contact her at Linnda.Durre@gmail.com and 407-739-8620.