The Angry Smile at Work: Passive Aggressive Behavior at the Office

The most passive aggressive trick in the book: corporate sabotage

Posted Mar 15, 2011

This might be the most disgusting news story ever: A pizza shop owner in Philadelphia intentionally planted mice into two competitors' restaurants to sabotage their businesses. Wow.

Two years ago, I created Passive Aggressive Diaries to gather stories about the conniving lengths people go to express their hidden anger and act out their covert hostility. Over the months, the majority of the examples-from Reality TV clips, Facebook postings, and relationship squabbles-have been hilarious. Last night, my Blog turned a page in its brief history. From funny to flat out gross, the story of the Philly pizza man shows how vulnerable most businesses are to nefarious acts of passive aggression. What makes any workplace ripe for this kind of sabotage?

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.

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.

Planting mice in the bathroom of a competitor's pizza shop is a new one, but acts of passive aggressive corporate sabotage are as old as the business world itself.