ask a boss

‘My Boss Is Passive-Aggressive!’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Dear Boss,

My department is in shambles. We are all miserable, we are all job searching, and we cannot leave fast enough. Unfortunately though, for the time being, we are stuck in our positions.

To paint a picture of our situation: On a company-wide survey, our team came in with the lowest morale and happiness in the company, and it has become a well-known fact due to our HR team’s loose lips and unprofessionalism. Our general unhappiness stems from the top. Our senior VP is a severely unhappy woman who makes inappropriate comments to and about her employees and lies to our CEO about things — and then throws team members under the bus to shrug off the blame.

While that is a leading cause of our unhappiness, here’s where I need help: Most of the time, our manager acts just like one of us. We go shopping, talk TV shows, pop culture, and more — dare I say we’re even friends? But she has gone radio-silent on us for the past week. She’ll walk into the office and not say anything to anyone, and leave the office without saying anything to anyone. She sends passive-aggressive emails and acts like we are not here. We have always assumed when she does this that something in her personal life is off, and eventually she’ll come around. This time is different. She’s deliberately ignoring emails, not attending meetings, and looking right through us.

We were asked to give feedback about her to the CEO in a meeting where we were encouraged to be open and honest because, as he noted, the feedback was just for him to look over. However, we think that our feedback (which wasn’t necessarily negative but wasn’t overwhelmingly positive) was shared with her, and that’s the reason she’s giving us the silent treatment. The fact that she’s behaving like this screams she’s not ready for a promotion, but it’s also causing so much tension within our team that even the summer interns have noticed, as well as other people in the company.

As a friend I want to ask her what’s going on, but she’s also my boss, and I don’t have enough in savings to lose my job. My team is upset, stressed, and at a loss. Her behavior is affecting our performance and our motivation. We don’t know who to turn to because we fear our VP will make a childish comment about our feedback, and unfortunately we can’t trust our HR department. Do we just suck it up and hope she thaws out soon?

Well, this is a mess.

I’m glad to hear that you’re all actively job-searching because that’s the only long-term solution here. Your department, and possibly your broader organization, sounds like a cesspool of dysfunction.

While your manager’s freeze-out is your most immediate problem, it’s not really your biggest problem. And I’m not sure it requires any response from you other than to shrug and wait it out.

Your boss is behaving like a child, but that’s not your problem to solve. If she wants to ignore emails, skip meetings, and give everyone the silent treatment … can you just let her? This is entirely about her, not the rest of you, and the more you just let her do it (as opposed to trying to appease her), the more ridiculous she’ll look to anyone who’s happening to watch.

And really, you don’t need to try to appease her. She’s your manager; she has all the power here. If she has a problem or concern with your team or an individual person on your team, her job makes it very easy for her to address it professionally. In fact, she’s obligated to do that rather than sulk.

The other thing that’s important to remember here: Your boss is not your friend. One of the many signs of dysfunction on your team is how she’s blurred professional boundaries that should be in place. Given the rest of her behavior, that’s not terribly surprising — immaturity seems to be her M.O. — but remembering she’s not actually your friend will help you navigate the situation more effectively. Your situation isn’t “my friend is upset and I should find out what’s wrong and make her feel better.” It’s “my boss is throwing a temper tantrum because we responded to our CEO’s request for candid feedback about her, and she’s using her position to try to punish us.”

And that is almost definitely what’s going here. She’s sulking and she’s trying to make you feel consequences for giving feedback about her to the CEO.

This is worth raising to the attention of someone senior to her in your organization’s hierarchy, ideally her boss.

Now, to be clear, normally you need to be pretty judicious about when and how you go over your boss’s head, but your manager’s behavior is egregious enough that it warrants it. This would be true even if her freeze-out hadn’t been precipitated by your conversation with the CEO, but the fact that it was makes this even more serious. Your CEO can’t expect people to give him the honest input he’s asking for if they fear being punished by their boss. Seen in that light, your manager’s behavior is actually insubordinate! She’s signaling very clearly that you shouldn’t be honest if asked about her again, and that’s tremendously undermining to your organization’s management and to your CEO’s ability to do his job.

So talk to someone above her and say something like: “We’re in an awkward situation with Jane. Right after Bob asked for our feedback about her, she started freezing us out. For the last week, she’s refused to speak to anyone on our team. She’s ignoring emails, not attending meetings, and not even acknowledging we’re in the room. The timing makes it seem like it’s a reaction to what we discussed with Bob. It’s making it difficult to get work done.” You could add, “We could ignore it, but it’s causing problems like not being able to get work approved or invoices sent out.” (You wouldn’t have this conversation immediately, like after a day or two of her silent treatment. But after a week of a clear and deliberate freeze-out? At that point escalating is warranted because she’s essentially making herself AWOL.)

Of course, if her boss is your terrible, gossipy, problem-minimizing VP, then skip that person and go one level higher if your company politics allow it. And I’m not sure how large your company is, but if it’s relatively small and informal, you might even be able to just go back to your CEO and say, “Here’s what happened after we talked to you.”

But ultimately, this is just a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem. Even if your boss starts talking to you tomorrow and everything is smoothed over, you’re still working for someone who’s incredibly juvenile and punitive, and who seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what being a manager is all about. Given that, I’d limit how much you invest emotionally in trying to fix this, and instead put your energy into escaping altogether.

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Boss Is Passive-Aggressive!’