How do you deal with passive aggressive leaders? – Supervisor (GS-14), U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Fans of the NBC show Saturday Night Live might remember a recurring character from the late 1980s called The Church Lady. Appearing in a talk-show format, she would pass judgment on the sins of others by uttering the sarcastic catchphrase, “Well, isn’t that special?”

Of course, passive-aggressive leaders in the workplace don’t generate laughter. They generate frustration. Plus, their catchphrases tend to be a little more subtle, and a whole lot more biting, such as, “That’s an interesting idea.” “I’m surprised you volunteered for such a difficult assignment.” “I didn’t know you could perform at such a high level.”

What might be praise comes off sounding like a dig, just because of the leaders’ tone and timing. Unfortunately, the outcome is an employee lacking the confidence needed to overcome the many challenges facing their agencies and our country.

As a federal employee, you cannot simply confront your leader in the same way The Church Lady’s “guests” would eventually confront her. You don’t want to burn any bridges. In fact, you probably want to build a more effective relationship.

To begin with, don’t take the comments personally. If you can honestly say you’re doing a great job, then it’s important to recognize that any passive-aggressive comments coming your way are more about the leader than about you.

So what might be driving the behavior? It’s worth trying to walk a mile in your leader’s shoes in an effort to reduce the immediate, emotional reaction. Did your leader have a bad boss who set a bad example? Does it reflect you manager’s poor sense of humor? Is there a fear of offering direct feedback?

It’s dangerous to speculate too much about a leader’s motivations, but it’s worth trying to get some perspective.

Once your confidence begins to recover, a calm, diplomatic follow-up might be in order the next time a passive-aggressive comment comes your way. If the comment is delivered one on one, simply express your confusion. Then ask for more clearly articulated feedback. Even at your most diplomatic, your leader may be defensive. It’s okay. Just make it clear that you’re not trying to be disrespectful. You’re just trying to perform at an outstanding level.

It’s likely that you will need to engage your leader in a similar fashion repeatedly before seeing signs of progress. Just be prepared. You will need to listen and respond respectfully – remember, you asked for it – and ultimately follow up with new behaviors and actions.

Of course, it may be too difficult for your manager to change. You might find a mentor who can help you navigate the situation more effectively. But it may be just as likely that you need to leave a bad boss. If the behavior continues affecting you personally and professionally, it’s time to move on. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that point.

I’m hoping other readers might have some advice for a fellow fed dealing with a passive-aggressive boss. If you have ideas, please share your suggestions by commenting below or by sending me an email at

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