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Why Passive Aggression Thrives in the Workplace

Eight elements that make offices vulnerable to passive-aggressive behavior

Passive aggressive behavior is the perfect crime when it comes to sabotaging workplace productivity and souring office morale. Defined as a “deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger” (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009), passive aggression, by its very nature, occurs through covert and “justifiable” actions that evade Human Resources’ disciplinary action while undermining authority and disrupting work flow. What makes workplaces so vulnerable to passive aggressive behavior?

The Time Factor

Other than home, many adults spend more time at work than anywhere else. For the person who has difficulty communicating honestly and directly, he will play out his passive aggressive style wherever he spends a great deal of time.

Relationships Happen

Whether strictly business or over friendly lunches, enduring relationships develop in most workplaces and within relationships, passive aggression occurs.

Honesty is Not Always Professional

The professional atmosphere of most office settings makes honest emotional expression unacceptable. Yet even in a formal business environment, emotions are aroused over any number of things—workload, work quality, “the big deal,” promotions, respect, talent, credibility, and other very personal issues that touch on an individual’s self-worth. These heartfelt and personal emotions need an outlet.

It’s Personal, Not Business

In most workplaces, an employee does not have the ability to tell his boss how he really feels about an issue without risking his career. It is also true that a boss, frustrated by the quality of a supervisee's work, would violate both written and unwritten company policies by giving the employee completely candid feedback. Words in the workplace must be chosen with extreme care, thereby making it an ideal environment for passive aggression.

You Remind Me of My Mom

The structure of a workplace can often resemble a dysfunctional home. For a child who grew up with controlling parents who didn’t allow the expression of anger, a hierarchical workplace may trigger his belief that all authority figures are hostile. The employee will often behave as if any authority figure in the workplace is the intolerant adult from his younger days and will act out in hidden ways to subvert that authority.

You Read Me Wrong

Electronic communication gives an ideal cover for passive aggressive exchanges among co-workers. In a face-to-face or even telephone interaction, body language and tone of voice betray anger and hostility. The use of e-mail and texting has completely altered the way in which business people interact—and the ways in which meaning is transmitted. When big deals, major decisions, and important working relationships are established and maintained without traditional personal contact, efficiency is won but important messages may be lost—or hidden.

It Wasn’t My Responsibility

The teamwork dynamic encouraged by many workplaces can be a great venue for passive aggressive obstruction. The covert actions of one hostile team member can stop the whole show and sabotage entire projects in a subtle enough way that his responsibility is not readily apparent or can be tenaciously justified.

“You’re Fired!”

It may be easy for Donald Trump to say it on TV, but in reality, Human Resources policies—designed with the best intentions of protecting workers—can make it especially challenging to terminate a passive aggressive employee. The passive aggressive person is always armed with a plausible explanation for his behaviors (“I am allowed to use my sick days. I can’t help it if I always get sick just before a holiday weekend”) and is expert in casting himself in the role of victim to his outwardly angry accuser.

More information on passive aggressive behavior in the workplace and effective strategies for managing this behavior can be found in The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.

More from Signe Whitson L.S.W., C-SSWS
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