Today my boss asked me to step into a side room and started asking me about my workload. He didn't seem interested in my reply so I assumed this was just a performance review (I'm overdue) . He then proceeded to follow up by reminding me a meeting was cancelled. Then all of a sudden he switched tack and started listing occasions where he said that I was "Passive aggressive."

One of the things he called me up on was arguing about tasks. But the thing is I often find him vague, so I need to ask questions otherwise I have no idea what he wants ( and if I take the initiative and the result is not what he wants he gets angry with me as well.)

For example our dept got emailed to do a task, it was addressed to my boss but I was CC-ed in. Not long after I finished my normal morning work and asked him if he needed anything from me he asked me for help with the task he was e-mailed. So I read it, and got stuff set up on my system ready to help. The moment I followed the instructions in the e-mail it had the desired result immediately. So I told him what I'd done and asked him if I should report the result or did he want to wait until we'd done a full check. He got terse with me and said " Well I thought we were doing this together, you do it then" and went to do another task.

I apologised and said " Sorry I thought this was what you wanted me to do, how did you want to check it?" But he told me again to just do it

He brought this incident up today and said I'd just sighed. I asked again what he'd meant but he once again refused to explain. I've never had feedback like this, and I just didn't know how to respond.

He seems to want to assert his authority over me, and wants me to say " Yes boss!" to everything. But he won't explain, often asks me to do tasks for stuff that currently can't be done or sometimes will go a whole day without assigning me anything. So I never know what he wants me to be doing. How do I tackle this guy?

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    How long have you worked with him? Is this a new boss? – ingo Jan 26 '15 at 23:57
  • Sounds like insecurity or poor leadership coaching. This isn't just a localized thing with some bad apple companies that don't coach their managers to empower employees. People have even left rockstar companies like Google because of a manager's style they couldn't see eye-to-eye with. – shivsky Jan 27 '15 at 14:52
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    Why not just do what your boss instructs you to do instead of arguing with him... seems less passive aggressive and more irritated with a nonproductive and argumentative report. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jan 27 '15 at 16:09
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    @ReallyTiredOfThisGame: By any chance, are you this guy's boss? – user145 Jan 28 '15 at 14:41
  • I could suggest some sneaky and underhanded ways to get back at your boss, how do you feel about starting a nasty rumor? – Thoth Feb 20 '15 at 0:10

It sounds to me like he believes that you don't respect him, and that when you do what you see as "taking the initiative" he sees that as you trying to show him up. I know this will sound incredibly manipulative, but the way that I've handled this in the past is to change my communication style (mostly body language - I'm not a patient person when I know what I need to do) and to be very active in soliciting his input, even if you don't really need it to finish the task.

Don't look at it as asking for information you already have which is a waste of your time. Involving him and making him feel respected is a valuable use of your time because you can't work efficiently if he's dragging you into his office and accusing you of being passive aggressive. It was a pretty large shift in attitude for me to see managing the relationship with my boss as essential to getting my work done. I'm an Engineer and these soft "people skills" don't come all that naturally :)

Let me show you the worst possible way to perceive the example from your question (this is not how I personally perceive it) and interject some advice on how to do it a little differently.

So, in your scenario, you finished your normal work and then asked your boss if he needed help. That says to him "I can do my job and have time left over for yours." Instead of saying "do you need help?" try "Is there anything you want me to do?". The language changes his role to "boss" instead of "peer".

He tells you he needs help with a task because of how you asked the question. "Helping him" means in his mind means he will do the task with your assistance and instead you just do it without him. So not only did you not meet his expectations, you also made him look bad because you didn't need help to complete the task that he did need help with. When you read through the e-mail, you could have discussed the task with him and seen what he thought needed to be done and which parts he wanted to do himself and which parts he wanted your help with.

How would you feel if you were, I don't know, changing the brakes on your car and someone said "Need any help with that?" and you say "Yes" thinking you could really use someone to hand you a wrench while you're under the car. Instead this person grabs a wrench, changes the brakes, and says "All done! would you like to check my work?" Sometimes even though we are completely capable of doing something more efficiently than someone else, it's not a good idea to grab it out of their hands and run with it.

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Well, first, ask yourself if he really needs tackling.

There is a serious communications problems between the two of you, and from the title you gave this question (before the edit), you've got a large "Blame arrow" pointing at you. I also get the impression that this has been festering for some time.

Whether or not you're right or wrong, he's the boss and you are the employee. It sounds like he's very exasperated with you, right now. Whether he has some blame or not is immaterial. Right now you need to fix this relationship, and then work on fixing the communication between the two of you.

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You might need to stop being passive aggressive


Part 1: Or, some thoughts on how you present in this question

According to wikipedia1:

Passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility, ...

With that in mind, what Telastyn &i take away from this is that the original title of this question is passive aggressive.

Going further, and looking at the body of the question - your last paragraph, for example:

He seems to want to assert his authority over me, and wants me to say " Yes boss!" to everything. But he won't explain, often asks me to do tasks for stuff that currently can't be done or sometimes will go a whole day without assigning me anything. So I never know what he wants me to be doing. How do I tackle this guy?

From this, do note a few things

  1. You say he wants "to assert his authority" over you, but you give no evidence of it. Asking you to do things isn't asserting authority - it's his job.
  2. You didn't give an example of impossible things your boss has asked you to do.
  3. He might not assign you work in a day. I don't know what your job is, but I've always found it useful to ask what to do when I don't have anything to do. Your boss might not know you don't have anything to do!
  4. You shouldn't be "tackling" humans unless you play professional contact sports. You can tackle problems, but please don't be the person who says "people are problems" - they're not, people are people. You should be endeavouring to work with your boss.

For whatever reason, to me, you haven't composed a well thought out, elegant question that details your issues. This makes it appear (to me, anyway) as though you have this notion - my boss is a passive-aggressive type who is keeping me down, man - and you want people to take your side against your boss. And that, my friend, is actually an example of passive-aggressive behaviour, as used in common parlance.


Part 2: Whereby I answer your explicit question

Your question is how do i tackle this guy - I don't know if that is the "right" question, because if you really are displaying some passive-aggression, then it is really "you" that needs "tackling". But that's not what you asked.

  1. How did you respond to his listing times you were passive aggressive? You don't mention, but as a first step, you should talk him through this list.
  2. For each entry, apologise for being passive aggressive, and say you didn't mean to come across in that manner.
  3. For each entry, say what you were trying to get across in each instance. That last sentence is key, and you should express it in a way that enforces your desire to be collaborative and to work with your boss.
  4. To be clear, don't mention, raise, blame or otherwise insinuate deficiencies in your boss' style/capabilities. Instead, blame yourself. It's not "the boss wasn't clear" its "I didn't have a firm understanding on how to go about this task".
  5. Once you've done this, suggest that you both work on some project/task together - at an appropriate time. Maybe immediately after, maybe a day later, I don't know, that's something you need to decide.
  6. The task isn't important. From steps 1-4, you'll have an idea about what the issues are that make your boss think you're passive aggressive. Be blunt, let him know this task isn't about "the task", but about creating a more wholesome work environment.
  7. Tell him that from that list, you are aware that a, b, c might occur. Tell him - in the spirit of creating a positive relationship - about how you're going to mitigate that happening on this task. Ask him to let you know if it happens, or anything else happens, or if any issues were mitigated.
  8. If something happens, add it to the list. If you mitigate something, note it as a "solution" to one of the issues.
  9. Going forward, try to work out solutions to this items on the list, until it's just a list of solutions!
  10. If this doesn't improve things after a few months, you should consider new employment.

Over the next many tasks, you'll get an idea on how to resolve everything. I think that would be an excellent way of showing that you're a team player, you're dedicated to making your boss look good, and you'll improve the relationship because you are bending over backwards to help out. And every boss likes that. That is why the apologising is key - you're showing you can and will work under him, to help him.

You want to fix this ASAP, because you always want a good relationship with your boss - the best way to get promoted? Get your boss promoted. He'll want someone to fill the void, and who better but his trusty lieutenant?

Also, not getting along with your boss is the number one reason for getting fired.


Part 3: Whereby I answer the question you asked in the title

On the other hand if you are right (which would mean I am wrong, a sadly common occurance), then you have some difficulties. I would still go about the steps above, but I wouldn't expect any improvements. You should start looking for new work, because you (not you-you, everybody-you) just don't want to work under a passive-aggressive-type. Its not fun, and it will eat away at you. There's no harm in pursuing happiness in a different company.

If this trend of a boss being upset with you continues into the new workplace, then, uh, well, you're either passive-aggressive OR really unlucky.



1: Wikipedia also says

Workplace conflict is a specific type of conflict that occurs in workplaces.

So take what you will from wikipedia.

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Take the attitude that the boss's personal issues are his to wallow in. They become your problem if you choose to wallow in them alongside him. Leave him to enjoy his own mud bath. By himself.

The only thing that you should care about is that your task be clearly delineated so if he gives you a task, keep at him until you get a clear, actionable task description from him. You'll be blamed for anything that goes wrong or is not done the way he wants it. So make sure you know exactly what he wants and how it wants it.

Let him whine about you being passive/aggressive. As long as you are aggressive about making sure you know what he wants or how he wants it. He is not a happy guy and he'll probably stay an unhappy guy. If it's not you, it's going someone else, or something else. Your boss seems to me one of those people who are happy only when they are unhappy. If you want to be happy, keep your transactions with him at arms' length and solely about business or the business at hand.

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    I think that you shouldn't assume that the one side of this story that we've heard tells the entire story. My gut instinct tells me that while the boss isn't handling the situation well, he's not completely irrational and that the OP has some responsibility for the situation. – ColleenV Jan 27 '15 at 17:00
  • @ColleenV Taking into account that you may be right and that the OP may bear their share of the responsibility for the situation, my answer still works since the focus of my answer is on making sure that the OP is getting their work done according to the boss's specs. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 27 '15 at 17:48
  • I got the impression from this But he won't explain, often asks me to do tasks for stuff that currently can't be done or sometimes will go a whole day without assigning me anything. that the boss is the one keeping a troublesome employee at arms' length, so trying to implement your approach without correcting the root cause is going to be problematic. The more aggressive the employee gets, the more argumentative/troublesome they will seem to the boss, and the less the boss will want to deal with them. The problem gets worse rather than better. – ColleenV Jan 27 '15 at 18:44
  • @ColleenV Keeping the boss at arms' length and talking to the boss only about business and focusing only on the business is hardly problematic. In fact, it keeps personality conflicts from interfering with the conduct of business. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 29 '15 at 5:42

Some great answers so far. I might add that another factor in this is the manager's personality and the management style that naturally follows from it.

There is some interesting research and exercises that can help to self-appraise of your own personality type, as well as 'place' your manager in a particular category.

This is helpful because it gives good insight into what behavior is most natural and therefore, what approach 'works' best for you, as well as for your manager.

This knowledge can be priceless in that it can help avoid many issues before they arise (like in this case).

Different people respond to same stimulus (behavior, outcome, or event) in different ways. In @ColleenV's example, someone looking for a bit of help in changing the brakes on a car might be elated if someone else simply did it for them (problem solved, time saved!) while another person might have the reaction she describes.

The point is it's not about what behavior has objectively taken place, but how it is interpreted/perceived by those involved. This is where personality types can provide good general insight and give one the power to (a) anticipate and curb their own 'natural' tendencies which may not be optimal in terms of the reactions of the people involved, and (b) anticipate/predict the reactions of others to this or that action on their part.

This gives the ability to control others' responses through the control of your own behavior. It also gives the ability to be more sensitive to others' behavior.

Rather than take everything personally, such sensitivity enables to take a step back and look at the situation in a more detached manner. More often than not, people just can't help being themselves. Knowing this and using this knowledge to behave in effective ways with those around you is a great asset in any social setting, including the workplace. Good luck!

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    You make a very good point about different folks having different perceptions of the same actions. If someone takes over a task I see as "mine", it's difficult for me to see that as doing me a favor instead of as implying I'm not competent to do it. I've had to work pretty hard to change my attitude and assume good intentions until it's proven otherwise. – ColleenV Jan 28 '15 at 14:19