4 Tips for a Toxic Workplace: When Your Boss or Co-Worker is a Covert-Aggressor

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Dealing with someone who is covertly aggressive is always a challenge — and especially so in the workplace, where we can feel trapped. Here are four tips to help cope with this kind of manipulative behavior.

Most folks hate to be cast in a negative light, and even some of the most aggressive characters try to avoid being seen as the ruthless people they can sometimes be. That’s why covert-aggression is one of the most common types of behavior you’ll encounter. When someone really wants to hoodwink or take advantage of you, keeping their aggressive intentions under wraps is a good way to help guarantee success. I’ve written several articles (see, for example, “When Passive-Aggression isn’t Very Passive”) as well as a major book (In Sheep’s Clothing) on differentiating covert from passive aggression and dealing more effectively with the manipulative aspects of this common and problematic behavior in relationships. But what do you do when the covert-aggressor in your life is your co-worker or, even worse, your boss?

Lately, I’ve been getting an unusual number of emails from individuals in several different countries lamenting the extent to which they find themselves dealing with covert-aggression in their workplace. Their stories are very similar; here is a typical example:

I’m so glad I came across your book, “In Sheep’s Clothing”, because it describes perfectly a person I work with. She’s a very intelligent person, has a master’s degree, and is one of the top sales reps in our company. Sometimes I think the nature of her job might feed her need to always win. And sometimes I wonder if there aren’t some things built into the fabric of the corporate environment that don’t encourage or even reward the kind behavior she displays.

What gets to me is that she always seems to be ‘winning’ at someone else’s expense. She seems to wage war on anyone she thinks stands in her way, and recently she’s turned her sights on me. This woman is like Jekyll and Hyde. She can seem like your ‘best friend’ if she thinks you can help her get what she wants. But do or say anything that she thinks keeps her from victory, and she’ll back-stab you in a heartbeat. She’s constantly undermining and manipulating, yet she always seems to get her way. It makes me think about how destructive the model of ‘success at all costs’ can be.

I don’t really love my job that much but I’m afraid to leave it because I probably wouldn’t be able to make as much money doing something else. Still, it might be worth the peace of mind to not have to deal with this woman’s behavior day in and day out. Everyone wants to win, myself included. But it seems like there have to be limits, boundaries, rules, etc., and I don’t know if I can take what this environment has become like anymore.

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For many reasons, it’s a real challenge to deal with manipulative, back-stabbing behavior in the workplace. For one thing, it’s easy to feel trapped by our work situations. Everyone needs employment, and sometimes personal circumstances make it very difficult to simply walk out of a bad environment. Still, there are some things a person can do to maintain sanity and keep things manageable:

Don’t Get Lured into Playing the Game
Value the person you are and stay true to yourself. Don’t try to outmaneuver your manipulator. Be straightforward in your dealings with everyone and don’t threaten reprisals — the less of a threat you appear, the less likely you are to be targeted. Always keep a keen eye out for the ‘win-win’ opportunities.
Cultivate and Nurture Your Support System
No doubt there are others in your workplace who identify with your situation and concerns. Network with those who share your principles and are likely to value mutual support. Don’t try to form combative alliances, pitting your ‘team’ against your rivals, but make clear your readiness to afford support to others and be sure to nurture and value the support others might provide you.
Be Assertive
You don’t have to sit and take destructive behavior. Address your issues and concerns directly but also calmly and without hostility. Honor your principles and stand your ground. But pick your battles carefully and don’t nitpick. You don’t want to send the signal that you’re a doormat, but sometimes you do just need to pull back or let go when something’s not really worth fighting for.
Accept the Risk That Comes With Employment in the Free Marketplace
…and be prepared to leave if necessary. Some risks inherently accompany the dynamic nature of the working world. And some working environments are so toxic that they can pose a real hazard to your mental and emotional health. Don’t allow yourself to become too dependent upon any particular job or position. And don’t automatically assume you can’t afford to make a change if you really need to. Once you’ve come to terms with the risks involved, you might find that seeking a new opportunity is the best move you ever made.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of ‘character disturbance’ has increased in recent years, along with all forms of aggression, including covert-aggression. Too many folks no longer have a sufficient sense of shame or guilt to inhibit themselves from doing things that negatively impact on others. And the highly competitive and insecure environments of many workplaces only increase the likelihood you’ll encounter a toxic boss or co-worker at one time or another. I’m fairly certain many readers could share experiences and insights that attest to how problematic and stressful it can be to deal with a covertly aggressive boss or co-worker. But hopefully, the tips I’ve outlined here will be of some help.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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