How to Handle a Passive Aggressive Boss at Work

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The best kind of boss is the one who gets things done without micromanaging every detail. But for many employees, the worst boss is the passive aggressive one. These managers seem to have a negative outlook on life that comes out subtly in everything they do. They’ll give you praise one moment and ignore you the next. They’ll assign tasks without explanation, then get upset when you don’t understand them.

A passive-aggressive boss leaves you feeling confused and frustrated — not exactly the ideal work environment. However, if your workplace dynamic has become adversarial because of your manager, there are ways to handle it with confidence instead of resentment. Keep reading for advice on how to handle a passive-aggressive boss at work by keeping your peace and continuing to be productive while maintaining self-respect.

Establish a Baseline of Behavior

Whenever you start a job, it’s a good idea to get to know the manager. If you sense an issue, you can approach them about it before it gets out of hand. If you’re friendly with your manager, you’ll have an easier time addressing problems as you see them come up. If your passive aggressive boss is a total stranger, don’t be afraid to reach out to human resources and ask to sit down with your manager for a conversation.

This will help you understand their communication style and improve your own communication in response. If you’ve been working with your passive aggressive boss for a while and a problem arises, you can go to them and say something like, “I feel like we need to talk about how we communicate with each other.” This will let your boss know you’re serious and gives them an opportunity to make a change if they’re open to it.

Set Healthy Boundaries

Bosses are human, so don’t expect them to be perfect. However, there are some things you can do to let your passive aggressive boss know that there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. For example, your boss might assign a project and then get upset when you come back and tell them that you struggled with it, then finish it in a different way than they would have.

Say something like, “I’m sorry if it doesn’t meet your expectations. I struggled with it and was trying to come up with a solution that made the most sense for me and the project.” Letting your boss know your struggles and how you overcame them will let them know that you’re trying your best and give them the chance to back off.

Ask for Clarification When You Don’t Understand

If your boss assigns you a task and you don’t understand why they want it done a certain way or what their expectations are, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. This will let them know that you want to do the best job possible and that you’re not ignoring them when they assign a task. Plus, it’s a great way to avoid misunderstandings and resentments that could develop if you don’t ask questions when you don’t understand.

For example, if your boss assigns a task and then doesn’t talk to you again, you’re left wondering if you’re doing it right. If you don’t ask for clarification, you’ll wonder if you’re doing the wrong thing. When you ask for clarification, your boss will understand that you’re interested in doing a good job and will most likely appreciate it.

Come Together for Team Meetings

If you work in a small office, you may be able to come together with your co-workers to discuss how things are going and find a solution for your passive aggressive manager. If you’re worried about violating their privacy, you can suggest creating a simple survey that asks questions like, “What do you like about working here?” or “What do you wish was different about the workplace?”

This will give everyone a chance to speak their minds and let your passive aggressive boss know that their employees are paying attention and want to work with them as a team. If your office is too large to come together in one group, consider inviting your boss to a lunch meeting. This will give them a chance to express themselves without the pressure of an official meeting. You can also invite them to happy hour or coffee break so they don’t feel pressured or as though they’re being scolded.

Take Short Breathers

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your passive aggressive manager and you can’t get away from them, try taking short breaks from them. If you work from home, it’s easy to close your door and shut off your computer when you need a break. If you work in an office, you can excuse yourself to the bathroom or make an excuse to go sit outside for a few minutes.

This will let your manager know that you need some time away and that you’re coming back refreshed and ready to keep working. If you have an open relationship with your boss and they see you taking breaks, they may come to you and ask what’s going on. If they don’t, you can always explain in a follow-up email that you’d like to make sure you’re getting enough break time.


Working with a passive aggressive boss can feel overwhelming and frustrating at times. However, there are ways to stay calm and patient when dealing with a passive aggressive boss. Establishing a baseline of expectations, setting healthy boundaries, and asking for clarification when you don’t understand something can all help you navigate your workplace with ease. Additionally, you can come together with your co-workers for team meetings and take short breathers when you need to recharge and regenerate.


Annette Rhonwen

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