We’re all guilty of occasionally acting in passive-aggressive ways at work. We may use humor to deflect criticism, half-heartedly say yes when we mean no, or signal disinterest by waiting days before replying to an email—one form of the silent treatment.
Identifying passive-aggressive people usually isn’t difficult. They’re the colleagues whose snide comments make your blood boil. Their penchant to shift blame or avoid picking up their share of the workload is crazy-making and can ignite feelings of resentment and even anger. Sarcasm, the silent treatment, and procrastination are a few of the many classic signs of passive-aggressive behavior.
This type of conflict-avoidance can become an issue, however, when it becomes chronic and pervasive. Passive-aggressive behavior—whether malicious or unintentional—contributes to a toxic environment.
No one is immune to the effects of sugar-coated hostility at the office. Left unchecked, it can erode employee morale and contribute to burn out—even if you otherwise enjoy the work you do.
Shutting down passive-aggressive patterns in the workplace can be tricky. It takes time and patience. But learning to short circuit this unproductive cycle can save you from unending \ power struggles in work relationships that leave you feeling miserable.
More importantly, you can do your part to stop the spread of negative feelings and resentment throughout the office. Because the only thing worse than dealing with a passive-aggressive person is becoming one yourself.
See Beyond The Surface
When a colleague cops a passive-aggressive attitude, determine how this behavior has benefited them in the past.
Look for the hidden positive outcome motivating the person to act passive-aggressively. What do they achieve by not expressing themselves directly? They may get to feel superior by putting others down. Or perhaps they gossip to be part of the “in crowd” at the office.
Consider ways you may be enabling the passive-aggressive dynamic to stay in place as well: backhanded compliments, procrastinating on deliverables, saying “it’s fine” when it’s not.
Remove the Reward
While you may be irked by your colleague’s criticisms or lack of follow-through, refuse to mirror their personality and emotional tone. Don’t nag or rescue them. Avoid firing back with comments like “Why would you do that?” or “What do you really mean?” Tit for tat will not improve the situation.
Reacting to passive aggression only escalates conflict and gives the instigator the reward they want, keeping the bad behavior in place.
Feel it All—And Rise Above
You have the right to be treated with respect in the workplace (which is an expectation to never compromise on). You also have a responsibility to protect your mental and emotional well-being from passive-aggressive energy vampires. That might mean working from home to limit contact, popping on headphones while you work, or taking a brisk walk around the block to clear your mind.
Trying to quell your emotions doesn’t make the problem go away. If anything, it often makes it worse. It’s perfectly reasonably to be frustrated by passive-aggressive behavior, but process your emotions outside of your interaction with the person.
Take Ego Out of Communication
If your job requires collaboration with passive-aggressive colleagues, you may need to modify your communication ever so slightly in order to make your working relationship function.
When in direct conversation, avoid using words like “you” or “your” when directed at someone with a passive-aggressive personality. Replace it with statements that begin with “we” to depersonalize issues (We have some challenges...) or “when” (When there’s miscommunication on the team…).
Mastering a few simple principles of assertiveness can help defuse resistance and bolster cooperation in the situation.
Set Limits and Follow Through
When you start changing the way you communicate, there may be backlash from colleagues. Micro-aggressions may intensify when you disrupt the normal, elusive way of doing things.
Stay consistent in your assertive communication and work to establish clear standards and expectations that hold people accountable. When designed effectively, consequences are the most powerful way to snub out passive aggression.
For example, if you want to curb tardiness, begin meetings on time regardless of who runs late. If you say you’ll start without them, enforce it.
Adopt an Open-Door Policy
Passive-aggressive people struggle to express themselves openly at work, but you can influence positive change welcoming feedback and dialogue.
Start by offering different ways colleagues can get in touch beyond face-to-face communication. Mention that your inbox is always open to them or that you’re available of Slack or Skype throughout the day if something comes up.
Encouraging two-way communication helps head off passive-aggressive behavior and and hostility before it starts. By doing so, you help create a psychologically safe workplace where healthy, constructive problem-solving can thrive.
A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. Her clients include CEOs and C-level executives at top Fortune 500 companies such as Google and HP, as well as media personalities, startup founders, and entrepreneurs across industries. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. Get free tools to grow your career confidence at melodywilding.com.
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