Dealing with passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace

passive aggressive behaviour
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You approach the group speaking in hushed tones at the water cooler and the conversation stops.

You make requests of your colleagues, and are met with silence. You say, “There’s something strange going on here” and the perpetrator replies, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” What you’re experiencing is passive aggressive behaviour.

If you’re like most people, you’ve experienced passive aggressive behaviour in your life. You may have even engaged in some yourself. That’s what happens when people struggle to say what they’re really feeling. Possibly you indicated disinterest by waiting days before replying to an email. Perhaps you used humour to deflect criticism. Maybe you half-heartedly said “yes” when you really meant “no.” Sounds familiar?

The reason for passive aggressiveness lies within.

Research shows that passive aggressive behaviour is a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden anger (Long, Long, and Whitson, 2009). While the occasional display of passive aggressive behaviour can be annoying and unproductive, chronically passive aggressive people set out to sabotage and get back at others while avoiding direct conflict.

You may recognise some of the signs of passive aggressive behaviour below:

  • Failing to take responsibility
  • Doing less when asked to do more
  • Missing deadlines
  • Withholding important information
  • Resisting others’ suggestions for change or improvement
  • Complaining about office policies and procedures
  • Putting down co-workers in public forums such as presentations and meetings
  • Going over a boss’ head in an effort to make him/her appear incompetent
  • Ignoring requests
  • Arriving late and leaving early

Dealing with passive aggressive behaviour is tricky. Because passive aggressive people are by nature non-confrontational, they will avoid openly discussing issues that may be bothering them, opting instead to make inappropriate remarks or mumble under their breath, poisoning the atmosphere and making it uncomfortable for others to be around them.

Whether passive aggressive behaviour is standard practice at your workplace or only flares its ugly head occasionally, these tips will help you deal with the problem.

Keep calm and carry on

When your colleague pretends nothing is wrong or accuses you of overreacting, and your natural instinct is to get angry and defensive, don’t. According to Amy Su, co-author of Own the Room, “The person may want you to get mad so they can then blame you, which is a release of their own anxiety.” If you respond in an emotional way, you’ll have dug yourself into a hole with no way out.

Consider what’s driving the behaviour

People aren’t necessarily idiots because they act in a passive aggressive way. Perhaps they struggle to communicate their needs or are afraid of conflict. Annie McKee, founder of Teleos Leadership Institute and co-author of Primal Leadership says that passive aggressive behaviour often serves as a way for “people to get their emotional point across without having true, healthy conflict.”

In addition, self-centeredness fuels the behaviour. Passive aggressive people make the faulty assumption that others should know what they’re feeling. In addition, they believe that their needs and preferences are more important than anyone else’s. While you may understand what’s driving the behaviour, don’t try to fix it. Su says, “See it for what it is: an unproductive expression of emotions that they can’t share constructively.”

Accept your role

It takes two to tango and chances are you’ve played your part in creating the situation. Observe yourself. Are you doing something that is contributing to the dynamic or inviting the person to be passive aggressive? We’ve all done it: Leaked our emotions in a way that hurt others. Know the signs of passive aggressive behaviour and avoid falling into the trap.

Stand in the other person’s shoes

While you might prefer to throw your shoes at the other person, resist the temptation. Look at the situation from your colleague’s point of view. Beneath the snide remarks and irritating behaviour is an underlying emotion, opinion or perspective that is struggling to come out.

Perhaps your colleague thinks that the approach you’re suggesting is the wrong way to go and is afraid to say so. Maybe she doesn’t agree with the team’s strategy. She might possibly be worried about her ability to meet your expectations.

According to Su, “Not everyone likes or knows how to publicly discuss or express what they think.” By focusing on the underlying business concern or question, rather than on the way your colleague is expressing herself, you can address the actual problem and not get caught up in emotions.

Flip the energy

Once your heart beat has returned to normal, the flush of anger has left your cheeks, and you can communicate clearly, go back to the other person with the intention of engaging in a productive conversation. You could say something like, “You made a good point in that discussion we had earlier this week about managing schedules. This is what I heard you say.” By sticking to the content of their concerns and not the way they delivered their message you’re showing that you’re ready to work with them.

Speak in a matter-of -fact way. Bringing up how the message was delivered gives credence to the toxic part, according to Su, who says that sometimes the passive aggressive person just wants their opinion acknowledged.

Mind your tongue

Tempting though it may be, accusing the other person of being passive aggressive is like throwing a burning match into a can of petrol. Because the word is loaded with negative connotations, judging and labelling someone with that title puts them into a more defensive and angry place.

Rather than name calling, focus on the behaviour.

For example, McKee suggests recounting how some of your previous interactions have gone and the impact that the behaviour is having on you and possibly others. If you can, show how the other person’s actions are working against something they want or value, such as achieving the team’s goals or gaining a promotion.

Get back up

You’re not alone in this. If you’re noticing passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace, others likely are too. Do a reality check. Chances are you’ll find that you’ve got allies prepared to confirm your assertions. When you speak with your colleagues, do so with the intention of wanting to improve the relationship.

You don’t want to be perceived as a gossip or someone who bad mouths others.

Focus on the behaviour and not the person. Rather than saying, “Pam’s such a jerk” you might say, “I’m curious what you thought of Pam’s comment this morning about our team’s progress. How do you interpret her behaviour?”

Set clear expectations

Turn to your colleagues. As a team you can build clear and healthy norms and devise a long-term solution. For example, you can agree to be upfront about what’s not working well and model the honest and direct interactions you want to experience.

You can also keep one another on point. If the problematic person ignores agreements and claims ignorance, take notes in meetings about who’s to do what and by when to avoid misunderstandings. Agree clear, actionable tasks, put them in writing, and see that everyone gets a copy.

Get help

So, the problem is persistent and preventing you from doing your job? You suspect you’re being undermined? Outside observers are confirming your feelings? Get help. If you share the same manager, she’s the first port of call. If not, go to HR.   Be clear about the particular behaviour you and your colleagues have noticed and how it is impacting on your work. Stress that the complaint is about the behavior, not a judgment on the person.

Warning: tread lightly. Your manager may be under the person’s spell and not see the situation as you do.

She might also be conflict adverse, wanting only for problem to go away.

Act assertively

If you work interdependently, show up on time with your tasks completed. Copy others on important emails. Tell the person causing the problem that s/he is not to speak for you or represent you in meetings. Before meetings end, document agreements and follow up actions. McKee recommends keeping records: “Track specific behaviours so that you have examples if needed. It’s hard to argue with the facts.” Avoid working with the person as much as possible. Aim to keep contact to a minimum. If you have to work together, do so in a group. Chances are the passive aggressive person will tone down the behaviour in front of an audience.

Dealing with passive aggressiveness was not part of the job description and still, here you are. What to do now? Focus on what you can do to improve the situation. Don’t try to change a passive aggressive person’s attitude. Passive aggressive people are complex – their ways of behaving are rooted in their personal history including how they cope with stress, anxiety and insecurities. Confronting the behaviour upfront is a beginning and the tips above will help you in your quest to curb the behaviour. Be forewarned: there’s no promise that the person will accept and act on your feedback. Only when one is self-aware, understands the impact of their thoughts and actions on outcomes, and wants to make a change, can that change occur.

About the author

Elizabeth KuhnkeElizabeth Kuhnke is the best-selling author of Body Language: Learn How to Read Others and Communicate with Confidence. (Capstone 2016), as well as three titles in the For Dummies series.  (Body Language FD, 3rd edition, Communication Skills FD, Persuasion and Influence FD).

Elizabeth is an Executive Coach, specialising in impact and influence. An acknowledged expert and bestselling author on the subject of communication and non-verbal behaviours, Elizabeth works with senior leaders and rising stars in global organisations, helping them present themselves at their authentic best with clarity, confidence, and commitment.

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