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July 3, 2013

My first job coming out of  the military, I had an interesting supervisor. Every Monday morning she would place some candy and snacks on the desks of select workers and I found myself being one of the few whose desk she would skip.

Some of those whose desks where skipped, would become distressed for the rest of the week. The actions of my supervisor where surprisingly powerful. It was like she was trying to send a message to certain caseworkers.

“You ticked me of last week,  because of X, Y and Z and you need to be aware of your every move this week,  cause I am gonna get you.”

Out of those she marked for passive aggressive harassment, I was one of the few who didn’t care. But for the wrong reasons.  I was fresh out of the army, with money saved up from a recent deployment to Kuwait and single with no children.

Unlike most of my co workers, I didn’t have to worry about mouths to feed and for those who had children to provide for, it made a simple gesture such as not placing candy on a caseworker’s desk powerful and mean spirited.

Some of my fellow caseworkers who did not receive their candy for the week had such a bad case of anxiety that it became a case of self fulfilling prophecy. By Wednesday, they had already found themselves in some type of conflict with another caseworker, in which they were clearly at fault. Which led them right into the lioness’s den, for the dreaded write up.

I never got written up, and I never changed my nonchalant attitude towards my supervisor and her lieutenants.

Truth be told, had I been a father back then and very dependent on my work paycheck.  I too would have struggled with anxiety over not receiving candy on my desk.

But there’s good news. If you have ever found your self in a situation where you have been forced to put up with the pettiness of a supervisor, I am going to introduce you to four ways to respond to passive aggressive behavior by a work boss or supervisor.

1.)  Do Nothing.

Really,  this works.  If your boss has obviously in engaged in passive aggressive behavior, such as recognizing certain co workers for their work on a project that you took part in, and did not recognize you -do nothing.  Or perhaps invited some coworkers to a his son’s birthday party and not you- do nothing.

If you have ever taken the time to notice, most passive aggressive behavior involves rejection on some level. It works on most people because we are innately predisposed to feel hurt and fear by rejection. Popular evolutionary psychological theory states that our ancestors increased their chances of survival by living and working together in small groups, and that being kicked out of the group spelled a death sentence since the outside world was so harsh.

The fear and anxiety we experience even from small forms of rejection is really our lizard brain fearing the worst if we get kicked out of the community. Translated into today’s terms that would mean loss of income. But really, when we act out on our fears in the work place, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, because we become irritable, less communicative and more prone to making mistakes.

Doing nothing puts your brain at ease, doing nothing means that you accept that your boss or supervisor has made a decision you do not like, and you choose to assign no meaning to the decision or action, despite the obvious.

Doing nothing means you come to the belief that you are mentally capable of adequately dealing with any challenges life throws your way, and realizing that your boss’s feelings towards you cannot make or break your life.

2.) Adopt a Logical Perspective.

On a Monday morning, a female coworker confided with me in the parking lot about her dread for Monday mornings. She had become so afraid that there would be no candy on her desk and she had grown accustomed to working hard all week long just to get in our supervisor’s good graces. She was crying, and between bouts of tears she would mutter how stupid she felt.

Struggling to come up with some answers, I asked her.

“If she was that eager to fire us, don’t you think she would have fired us by now?” My co worker reminded me that we worked for the state, to which I reminded her that supervisors could only fire you after the third write up, and to date she had received five. Then I said:

“I really think this is about power and control through intimidation and nothing else.” My coworker nor any of the non candy recipients never got fired. (As far as I know -during my employment with this agency).

Adopting a logical perspective helps you put things into perspective, and increases the ease in which you can practice doing nothing in response of passive aggressive behavior.

3.) Embrace Your Difficult Feelings.

I am not going to lie, my feelings were hurt when I didn’t receive candy on my desk. My “I don’t care” and all business attitude was my way to avoid dealing with hurt. It was a defensive strategy that had served me well in the military. However, it was not healthy.

Embracing your most difficult of feelings allows you to come up with answers to your challenges. I for one strongly believe that we are all capable of solving our problems, once we become both optimistic and brutally honest with our selves.

Embracing difficult feelings is a paradoxical approach because it makes it easier for the mind to quickly get past the hurt and pain and adopt a logical perspective.

4.) Be Humble.

At a former employment, I unfortunately found myself caught up in a struggle for power. It was a national corporation and my mentor was fighting to keep his leadership position being taken by another would be in the ranks, who happened to have his own team of proteges. My mentor lost, and while I did keep my job I found myself dealing with big time passive aggressiveness. Such as being moved from my personal office to a shared office and losing a series of perks, that quite frankly had no bearing on my ability to do my job.

I did feel disrespected, and so did a fellow protege, who lost his job after he had lost his temper and chastised our new boss.

Keep in mind that while it is in the human genome to compete for status, our higher intelligence has allowed mankind to understand that privilege is an illusion. The standards of life are the same for all human beings – we are all vulnerable.

So if you have experienced a downgrade in “status” so long as it does not affect your ability to do your work and earn income, embrace your feelings of hurt, adopt a logical perspective, do nothing  (don’t react) about the situation and stay humble.


Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC, a professional counseling private practice.
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