Have you ever experienced passive aggressive behavior at work? Maybe a coworker has not-so-nicely commented on how you do something or has made backhanded comments toward you – those types of interactions are passive aggressive. Whether you have or haven’t experienced passive aggressive behavior, it’s important to know the signs of such behavior and how to deal with it.
What Does it Mean to be Passive Aggressive?
Mayo Clinic describes passive aggressive behavior as “a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There's a disconnect between what a passive-aggressive person says and what he or she does.”
While aggressive behavior is often violent and physical, passive aggressive behavior can be subtle and quiet. It is a way to indirectly express anger.
Just because someone is passive aggressive, that doesn’t mean they are a bad person. Psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson explains it as “a strategy we use when we think we don’t deserve to speak our minds or we’re afraid to be honest and open.”
Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior
Communication is important for productive work and progress. In navigating workplace communication, a passive aggressive person’s behavior will make communication complicated or even impossible.
Here are a few passive aggressive at-work examples:
Sarcasm can be used to put-down or belittle another person. It is one of the most common forms of passive aggressive behavior.
Similar to sarcasm, criticism puts down another person and can diminish confidence and is unproductive. Passive aggressive criticism often manifests through frequently criticising someone for little things.
For example, say you are in a meeting going over progress on a project. Then, someone makes a comment such as, “someone sure is taking their time,” they are being critical in an unproductive way.
Insults, back-handed compliments, etc. Negative communication can be very hurtful and harmful. It can cause confusion, anger, and frustration.
Saying nothing at all can also be passive aggressive. If someone is consciously ignoring you or everyone, they are also refusing to productively communicate. This can hinder progress, especially if the person is upset about something that happened.
A person who is passive aggressively resistant may refuse to do certain things or work with certain people. Maybe they make excuses for not emailing back, or they pretend to be on their phone when you address them.
Why is Passive Aggressive Behavior Harmful?
Psychology Today explains passive aggressive behavior as a form of anger: “Your passive-aggressive mother, co-worker, and/or boss are deeply angry people. They’re just as angry as a person who screams or throws things, but they have a different way of showing it. Passive-aggressive people are often terrified of confrontation, so they couch their anger with smiles.”
This anger can lead to a tense workplace. If there is someone being passive aggressive, it is going to affect the attitude of everyone involved. As things escalate, the morale of the entire office could be affected as others become invested in the situation.
Another way that passive aggressive behavior can be harmful is by disrupting productivity in the office. Tension between two coworkers will lead to less productive workdays for the two. In return, any work that they may be doing with others will also be affected, and soon the whole office workflow can be pushed out of synch and become unproductive.
It is very important to know how to deal with passive aggressiveness at work, because such behavior can affect morale, functionality, and productivity for individuals and even the entire workplace.
How to Deal with a Passive Aggressive Person
Dealing with someone who is passive aggressive can seem like an uphill battle. It’s important to remember that fighting back will rarely help and will often escalate a situation. It’s best to try to remain calm and reasonable.
Here are a few ways you can deal with a passive aggressive coworker:
Assess the situation
Try and see what the issue is. It’s possible that you might be doing something to upset your coworker.
Example: You love cupcakes and you notice that there are cupcakes in the office kitchen once in a while, so you help yourself. Well, those cupcakes actually belonged to someone and you hadn’t realized until they started acting passive aggressive toward you.
If you have done something that might have upset a coworker, acknowledging your mistake will be a quick way to rectifying the issue. Be honest and apologize for your mistake.
Try not to react
Try to ignore any unwarranted passive aggressive remarks. This method works best if you are dealing with a short, possibly isolated, incident. Maybe one of your coworkers is having a bad day and you just so happen to be standing in their path at the wrong moment. Not reacting could actually help deescalate the situation.
Hold them accountable
If someone is being unjustly passive aggressive with you, they are at fault and they might be using you as an outlet for their own anger or discomfort. If you find yourself saying something along the lines of, “They’re just acting out because they have a lot on their plate,” then remind yourself that it’s not your fault or responsibility to fix their situation.
Put yourself and your needs first
Remember that you come first. No one is going to advocate for you as much as you will. If the situation is inappropriate, unbearable, or, in any way, problematic, step up and take control of the situation. The worst thing you could do in those situations is let any harmful behavior affect your wellbeing.
Confront the person
If nothing else is working and the passive aggressive person is still bothering you, confront them about it. Remember to stay calm. Your effort in this method is to deescalate the situation rather than using them as an outlet for your own frustration. Specifically explain to them what they have been doing and how it is affecting you. It is possible that they are unaware of what they are doing. If so, confrontation will let them know what is going on and prompt them to stop. If they are fully aware of what they have been doing, confronting them will be a chance for them to directly communicate about their own problem so that you both can find a resolution.
If things still cannot be resolved, removing yourself from the situation may be the right solution. If you’re your desk is near the passive aggressive person, ask for desk change. If you are working with them on a project, ask to be moved to a different project or have them put on a different project. This option might not always be possible in a work setting but, if possible, could give you and the other person some space.
Ask for help
If nothing else is working, it might be time to ask for help. Talk to a boss, team leader, coworker, or even HR. If you are having issues with someone else in the office, Undercover Recruiter encourages you to talk to HR: “You’ll want to raise a grievance about someone who works with you if you feel you have been singled out, harassed or bullied – going to HR is a given.
What to Do If Your Boss is Passive Aggressive
If your boss is being passive aggressive toward you, you aren’t alone. An article by the Harvard Business Reviewstated that in an “examination of over 17,000 employees across 19 industries, 64% of employees don’t feel their boss provides them adequate support, and another survey found that 44% of employees have left a job because of a bad boss.”
Passive Aggressive Boss Traits:
- Lack of communication
- Sets you up to fail
- Toxic jokes
- Not accountable
- Poor feedback
Try following the above steps for dealing with a passive aggressive person when dealing with a passive aggressive boss. If those fail to work, and your office experience becomes unbearable, it might be time to ask for a transfer or look for another job. If you work in a small office, look for a similar job but with a better office vibe. If you work for a large company, ask for a transfer to a different office location or even just a different department.
If You are the One with Passive Aggressive Behavior
In addressing your own passive aggressive behavior issues, Idealist suggests that you start by “determin[ing] where your hostility is coming from, and recognize that this form of expression likely won’t solve your problems.”
Here are a few ways to recognize your own passive aggressive behavior:
- Do you struggle dealing with rejection?
- Do you put down or criticize others around you?
- Do you avoid confrontation when upset?
- Are you upset about something at work and don’t know how to deal with it?
If you find yourself becoming passive aggressive, as yourself why you feel that way. Try and pinpoint an event that triggered the behavior. If you can find out what started it, then you can work to address the issue.
One of the biggest steps in confronting your own behavior will be communicating with others. Talk to your boss, your coworkers, and anyone else you’ve been passive aggressive with. Explain to them what has upset you. Once you communicate, you will feel relieved and may even gain a different perspective about the issue.
For additional tips on getting along with coworkers, check out this article on our blog which includes tips about setting office expectations, addressing problems, and seeking resolutions.
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