Passive-Aggression in the Workplace

What is passive aggressive behavior and what can I do about it at work?

Posted Jun 26, 2019

The hidden hostility of passive-aggressive behavior can make this style of anger expression the perfect office crime. A passive aggressive employee’s behavior impacts the big picture of an organization’s productivity and morale but his or her piece-by-piece acts of insubordination and sabotage are often extremely hard to nail down. This post answers several of the most frequently asked questions about understanding and dealing with passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace.

What is passive-aggressive behavior?

Passive aggression is a deliberate, yet covert way of expressing feelings of anger. Fearful that life will get worse if other people know about their anger, the passive-aggressive person expresses feelings indirectly, through a range of behaviors designed to “get back” at another person without that person recognizing the underlying anger. Some of the most common examples of passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace include employees who:

  • Chronically “forget” deadlines or “misplace” important documents.
  • Procrastinate or carry out tasks inefficiently.
  • Choose not to take action that could prevent a problem from occurring.
  • Withhold important information.
  • Complain endlessly and blame others (often authority figures) for their problems.
  • Undermine the authority of others through rumor, gossip, complaints and innuendo.
  • Embarrass co-workers in public settings such as meetings or during presentations.
  • Leave notes, voice mails or electronic communication to avoid face-to-face confrontation.
  • Withdraw and sulk, rather than stating their opinions or needs.
  • Use words like “Fine” and “Whatever” to shut down a discussion.
  • Give lip service to doing things differently in the future, while knowing they don’t plan to change their behavior.

How do I deal with passive-aggressive co-workers?

The goal of a passive aggressive person is to cause others to feel frustrated and act out the anger that the passive-aggressive person is harboring internally.  The passive aggressive co-worker gains satisfaction and a sense of personal power when his/her actions lead someone else to overt expressions of anger; making a colleague lose their cool is considered a win for the passive-aggressive office-mate.

 The very best strategy for dealing with a passive-aggressive co-worker, then, is to understand this dynamic and make a conscious decision to remain calm and professional, no matter what they say or do. This is easier said than done, of course, as passive aggressive persons can be expert button pushers.  The key is to readily recognize the red flags of passive-aggressive behavior and know exactly what you are dealing with.

What is the best way to respond to passive-aggressive comments in the workplace?  What is an example of something you could say in response to sarcasm, undermining comments, etc.?

Emotionally neutral responses are the best way to respond to passive aggressive comments.  If the passive aggressive person senses that she has gotten under your skin, the balance of power is already shifted in her favor.  Avoid sarcastic responses, angry tones of voice, and/or aggressive body language that would reveal your frustration in dealing with a passive aggressive co-worker.  Instead, respond to a backhanded compliment, a biting joke, or an undermining comment in simple, unemotional, fact-based ways.

For example, if a passive-aggressive co-worker tries to deride your work on a project during a staff meeting, you should make the choice to:

1. Avoid an immediate response in front of your co-workers. Most people will see right through the passive aggressive person’s attempt to embarrass you. Your silence will amplify and expose the passive aggressive person’s unprofessional behavior—an exposure she will not enjoy and will seek to avoid in the future

OR

2. Briefly state what you contributed to the project without refuting or directly referring to your co-worker’s comments

Do not attempt to confront the co-worker about her statements during the meeting, as the presence of others always raises stakes and heightens emotions. Do use I-statements to calmly express your thoughts to the co-worker in a one-on-one setting after the meeting, however.  Passive aggressive persons are very uncomfortable with direct confrontation and once they learn that you are not afraid to deal with the situation in this direct way, they will likely avoid engaging you in future passive aggressive interactions.

What is the best way to respond to passive-aggressive emails? Is it best to just call or speak in person?

Passive aggressive people often use electronic communication, since face-to-face, direct communication causes them discomfort. Remember: The passive aggressive person thrives on covert, hidden anger. Therefore, if you are on the receiving end of a passive aggressive email, the best way to respond is through a face-to-face conversation whenever possible, or a phone call when direct communication is impossible.  If you sense that you have become involved in a passive-aggressive email war, step away from your keyboard and resist the urge to engage in a Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle.

How can you ensure that another worker's passive-aggressive behavior doesn't undermine your own success?

Passive aggressive co-workers often work behind the scenes to obstruct, delay, postpone, and undermine the successes of others.  Fortunately, there are several effective ways to prevent this from occurring:

  1. Set crystal clear expectations, limits, and deadlines at the beginning of any task or project and diligently communicate with the passive aggressive person if and when any covertly hostile behaviors are carried out.  
  2. Take away the gratification that the passive aggressive person receives from undermining your work; if he sees that he is successful in frustrating you, the passive-aggressive person feels his objectives have been met and his behavior is reinforced.  
  3. Communicate clear, natural consequences for passive-aggressive behaviors.  In this way, the person experiences accountability and pays an uncomfortable price for his actions.  When these three steps are implemented, a lot changes for the passive aggressive person:
  • Excuses such as "I didn't know" are no longer plausible
  • The pleasure of controlling a situation and inciting anger is eliminated
  • Behavioral accountability is experienced

For more, visit lsci.org

References

Long, N. & Whitson, S. (2018).  The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, in School, in Relationships, in the Workplace & Online.  Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.