Tips for getting along with passive aggressive colleagues

angry coworker, disruptive behaviour featuredIt seems passive aggressive behavior runs rampant in the workplace. This could be due to the rigid structure of hierarchy that exists in many workplaces, coupled with a cloud of sensitivity.

Often, people are scared to address passive aggressive behavior for fear of retribution or ruining a working relationship.

Our egos can be very fragile, triggered by the smallest piece of advice or request for correction. When a colleague’s ego is triggered, the “easiest” thing to do is to be passive aggressive about it. Conflict is uncomfortable, making passive aggressive the path of least resistance. But it only seems that way on the surface. Left unchecked, passive aggression can damage one’s mental and emotional health while disrupting the productive balance of the workplace. If you find yourself in an office with a few passive aggressors, here are some tips on how to get along with them.

Understand the iceberg

When a person reacts a certain way to a work situation, they are bringing with them a whole array of experiences to fuel their emotions. For example, let’s say you ask your colleague Sarah if she can complete her report by the end of the day so you can turn in your half of the project. You ask politely and you make your objective clear. Sarah, however, is having a bad day. Her husband has been bossing her around the house, her mother is ill, and her son has been acting out in school. Having you give her a tight deadline is the tip of her iceberg. She’ll say yes to your face, but then talk about you behind your back to anyone who will listen. For Sarah, this feels cathartic. But really, she’s just harboring misplaced resentment.

When you learn of this behavior, remind yourself that each one of us is an iceberg. What we see on the surface is just the tip. Any number of situations can fuel an emotional response. This will help you not take the behavior (or rumblings of gossip about you) personally.

Turn the tables

Sometimes one of the easiest ways to reduce unwanted behavior is to ask for feedback on your own. Ask your colleagues directly if they can pinpoint a time, you displayed passive aggressive behavior. Offer an opportunity for open dialog to examine how you could have handled the situation differently. By being the brave leader to have the tables turned on you, this encourages your colleagues to examine their own behavior and live by example.

Make sure you ask your colleagues for feedback that is observable and direct. Prepare yourself emotionally for what you might learn. Your ego may still be triggered, but if you prepare yourself with an open mind and heart, knowing you’ll be receiving feedback, you will be less likely to conjure up negative emotions associated with this exercise. 

Champion psychological safety

Along the same lines, work with your colleagues to champion psychological safety. Passive aggressive behavior strikes when individuals do not feel safe addressing the root of their frustration. This is due to a lack of psychological safety in the workplace. If you’re worried about getting fired or having a colleague run to your boss to “tattle” on you, you’re not going to speak up with behaviors that trigger an emotional response within you. Instead, you’ll shut down, and let the feelings build up and fester. Look for training sessions on psychological safety and speak with your leaders to encourage thoughtful discussions on this topic.

Don’t fall prey to gossip

A byproduct of passive aggressive behavior is gossip. Since the passive aggressor feels “threatened” or “unsettled,” he or she will not confront the source of their trigger. Instead, they will look for alliance by complaining about the trigger to anyone who will listen. This is dangerous since gossip can provide false feelings of validation.

If you hear gossip, be the bigger person and shut it down. You could say something like, “If you’re looking for a solution, have you considered talking to the source of your issue?”

At the very least, do not join in on the gossip.

These are just a few tips to help you work with passive aggressive colleagues. Ultimately, the goal is to eliminate passive aggressive culture within the workplace and replace it with psychological safety. While this is easier said than done, these tips are small ways you can pave the way forward.

About the author

Salman Raza is founder and CEO of training and development consultancy Razalution Bureau.


Salman Raza

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