Passive Aggressive Behaviour in the Workplace

A colleague doesn’t return your calls while you are both working to a deadline.

A co-worker is late for meetings and when she does show up, steers the conversation off topic.

Your subordinate goes over your head, claiming he was unaware of the proper chain of command.

Seemingly innocuous behaviours that slow work down, frustrate and irritate personnel and are difficult to address fall into the passive-aggressive category. Passive-aggression in the workplace is a challenging productivity drain. The behaviour is costly to organizations when communications bottleneck, poor morale and resentment make the organization inefficient. Companies that fail to address passive-aggressive behaviour have trouble attracting and retaining talent.

Those who practice passivity together with aggression often take the victim stance. They view themselves as powerless against a formidable opponent. From this vantage point, foot dragging and “working to rule” (doing the bare necessities) are effective weapons in the battle.

Passive-aggressive workers are adept at appearing to contribute, while sabotaging others’ efforts. They create ill will and frustration.

This behaviour at work is difficult to handle because it’s a subtle attempt to gain power and control. Sometimes taking a direct approach, pointing the behaviour out to the individual and asking for a change works in modifying passive aggressiveness.

However, more commonly, the direct approach nets feigned innocence, relatively plausible excuses or a “who me?” defensive response.

We have found that while women are often cited as using passive attempts to control their workplaces, men frequently opt for the indirect route to power. For example, when passive-aggressive men work for a female leader, they may signal their displeasure and sense of being diminished through undermining, back-handed compliments and public jibes disguised as “jokes”.

It is difficult to deal with a passive-aggressive person because the tendency to avoid direct conflict, bear a grudge and nurture a desire for revenge, is common. These individuals use denial effectively as a tool to ensure the continuation of the behaviour such as, “I’m not angry”; “I didn’t say or mean that”; “You’ve misunderstood”. Being accountable and responsible is antithetical to the passive person’s character.

Passive-aggressive behaviour often begins when a conflict is left unresolved. The conflict is typically caused when the passive aggressive staff person feels disrespected or thwarted in some way – his expertise was not given enough deference, her work received less credit than she felt it should have or he wasn’t treated as important enough.

The passive-aggressive person is ever vigilant about being unappreciated, reduced in stature or treated insensitively. As a result, it is easy for him or her to misread other people’s cues. For example, if a distracted co-worker fails to greet the passive-aggressive worker in the usual friendly way, this may be construed as a snub.

Being asked to work with an accomplished colleague may threaten the passive-aggressive individual’s sense of worth, triggering a flurry of undermining behaviours like coming late to meetings or back-biting behind the scenes.

In some cases, those who bear the brunt of these tactics, may have no idea why they are the recipient.

Leaders must deal with the offending staff member rather than peers. Some may make the choice to let the person go.

Others who are loyal to long-term employees and value their contribution may choose to invest the time and energy in helping the employee change their ways.

Leaders often need help.
Obtaining organizational support and coaching from a qualified psychologist can aid managers and supervisors in helping passive aggressive staff change.

Trying to understand what the passive aggressive person ultimately wants can help. Some will respond that they want co-workers to pay them more respect. Upon probing, passive aggressive people often find that they do not only want respect, they want more authority, revenge or deference. These expectations must be framed as unrealistic. Then, the individual needs to work on the reason for his or her needs.

A sense of reduced personal worth, being an imposter, feeling inadequate (less educated, less attractive, less successful, less wealthy, less accomplished) may be causing the behaviour. Making passive-aggressive people aware of their need to compare themselves to others to establish their superiority, for example, is important.

Helping passive-aggressive staff understand the dynamics of their behaviour and the negative outcomes personally, professionally and for the company will help. Aiding the passive-aggressive employee to use a more direct communication style when frustrated is also helpful. People who become passive aggressive when they feel controlled must learn how to discuss these issues in a constructive way rather than resorting to undermining or self-sabotaging behaviours.

Hoping the problem will go away won’t work. Once passive- aggressive behaviour is evident, bring it to the staff person’s awareness and work with them to end the dynamic. The employee, their colleagues and the organization will be relieved.

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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