How to deal with passive aggression in the workplace

Have you ever felt that someone in your workplace has been purposefully uncommunicative or obstructive.

For example,

  • You find that someone has withhold information and when you ask why they did not tell you they say: “I thought you knew”.
  • You sense there is something wrong between and ask if there is a problem and they curtly reply “Nothing’s wrong”, or “I’m not upset”.
  • They give excuses such as “I must not have heard you say that”, or “I didn’t see the email”, or “No one told me”.
  • They they feign cooperation, but deliberately stall, saying “I didn’t know you meant now” or “I’ll get it to you tomorrow”. 
  • They offer lame excuses for being late (again) and act offended when you say that lateness is a problem.
  • They shut down communication by giving answers such as “Fine”, or “Whatever”.  

Individually, none of these situations is unusual. From time to time, we all say such things.

However, when a person frequently behaves like this, chances are that person is angry about something, but does not feel free to express the anger openly. Any such behaviour that indirectly expresses anger could be regarded as “passive aggression”. Such behaviour could include the following.

  • Being uncommunicative (e.g. being unwilling to discuss an issue, being unclear or ambiguous)
  • Showing disrespect (e.g. selective forgetfulness, being late)
  • Procrastinating (e.g. putting off important tasks, giving priority to less important tasks)
  • Undermining (e.g. gossiping, making snide remarks)
  • Sabotaging (e.g. deliberately doing a poor job, not passing on important information)
  • Obstructing (e.g.deliberately stalling a project, preventing something from happening)
  • Being sulky or withdrawn (e.g.
  • Playing dumb (e.g. pretending to have misunderstood, pretending not to remember)
  • Avoiding responsibility (e.g. acting like a victim, making excuses)
  • Being infuriating (e.g. being sarcastic, pretending to be surprised that you are annoyed)

Passive aggression can be hugely damaging at both a personal level and at a corporate level. It not only creates bad feelings, but impacts on efficiency and productivity.

So how do you deal with it?

Firstly, once you recognise the other person’s behaviour as being an expression of their anger, take time out to consider how the person’s anger may affect you. Their behaviour may adversely affect on your emotions, your performance and your reputation. Potentially, they can hurt you and you need to assess this risk.

Secondly, recognise that your primary objective should be to protect yourself. (Don’t think about trying to change the other person as you probably can’t. It would most likely be a waste of your time and emotional energy. More importantly, you would be leaving yourself at risk if you don’t first protect yourself.)

Protecting yourself from passive aggression is much like strategic planning in that it is a cyclic process of assessing the situation, developing a plan, implementing the plan, seeing what works and what doesn’t and adapting the plan as necessary. Also, there are lots of things you can try, but none are guaranteed and your strategy should take into account such factors as the degree of risk, the level of annoyance and whether the person is your boss, a colleague or a subordinate.

Here are some suggestions.

Prepare yourself emotionally for the fact that you are dealing with an angry person.

  • Their passive aggressive behaviour may continue for a long time.
  • Their behaviour may annoy and frustrate you.
  • Chances are that their behavior will sometimes make feel angry.
  • Try not to show your anger.
  • See the angry person as having issues and try not to take anything personally.  

Protect your reputation by showing that you are the adult in the room and resist the temptation react angrily. Instead, be prepared to react coolly in a way that would win the respect of those around you. For instance, if the person makes a snide remark be prepared to come back with a response such as “I sense that you are angry about something … is there more you want to say?” and be prepared to use your response more than once. The same response could be for many situations.

Protect your performance by limiting their opportunity to cause problems. For example:

  • Be specific about what is expected
  • Set clear deadlines
  • Promptly confirm conversations by email clearly stating what was agreed.

You should also keep an open mind about the possibility that the passive aggressive behaviour may be in response to your own behaviour.

  • Perhaps your manner.
  • Perhaps a decision you have made.
  • Perhaps something you have done.
  • Perhaps something you could have done, but have not done.

Consider these possibilities. There may be something you can change that could be a small price to pay for reduced hostility. In particular, don’t become defensive if the angry person starts to open up about the reason for their passive aggressive behaviour. Instead, encourage the person to get it all out into the open. At least, you know what you are dealing with.

Finally, consider whether you may need a third party. If it seems there is a conflict between the two of you and you cannot resolve it quickly perhaps you need a mediator. A mediator can often help in turning a conflict into a productive problem-solving discussion.

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