Is Your Coworker Being Passive Aggressive Or Are They Just Oblivious? 3 Ways to Tell

Can you tell the difference between a passive aggressive colleague and an oblivious one?

Coworkers talking


Profile Picture
Taylor Tobin1.84k

Passive-aggressive interactions between coworkers sap productivity, weaken morale, and turn the office into a generally-unpleasant place to be. And sadly, these situations are something everyone deals with – no matter the industry or the workplace or the job. 

It’s definitely possible to push back against passive-aggressive behavior and rectify the issue, but first, you need to determine that passive aggression is truly at play. Sometimes, less-than-aware colleagues take actions that seem passive-aggressive at first, but are actually the product of unawareness. By definition, passive aggression needs to be intentional – but how can you tell whether your colleague is passive-aggressive or just oblivious? We found 3 surefire signs of subtle aggression to help clear things up.

1. If your coworker is failing to complete required tasks without a clear explanation, it’s likely a passive-aggressive move.

The majority of professionals would admit to occasional passive aggressive actions, from taking a seat in the conference room that you know is your colleague’s favorite to using a font in your PowerPoint presentation that your coworker considers a pet peeve. But if one of your office mates frequently fails to meet her work obligations in ways that damage your productivity, that’s a more severe case of passive aggression – and one that needs to be addressed ASAP. 

Psychology Today compares these lapses in performance to a child’s stubborn tantrum, and points out the problematic nature of this manifestation of passive aggression. 

“You might have a colleague who almost always finds a way to avoid the tasks that he needs to complete. They leave the full responsibility to others or take on an assignment and then do not finish it on time," author Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D wrote. "If this is a result of work-related stress, problems at home, or a procrastinating personality, then it might not be a case of passive-aggressive behavior. But if it is frequent and not obviously attributable to independent, external factors, it may be deliberate and count as passive-aggressive behavior.”

2. Passive-aggressive coworkers LIVE for office drama. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find an office employee who never takes some joy in the mini-scandals brewing in the break room on a given day. However, a coworker who truly revels in office drama and feels the need to insert themselves into any and all sordid scenarios may be exhibiting passive aggressive tendencies.

Business Insider explains the connection between drama thirst and passive aggression like this: “Unlike their plain old aggressive counterparts, passive-aggressive colleagues don't necessarily seize a starring role in office drama. Instead they stoke tensions whenever possible — they're less like a prima donna and more like the show's producer.” 

Basically, if you notice a colleague constantly hovering on the fringes of office intrigue that isn’t directly their business, it makes sense to approach with caution.

3. Does your colleague have trouble celebrating the successes of others? That's a sign of passive aggression.

Toxic, passive-aggressive people regularly struggle with jealousy, and in the workplace, this often emerges in petty and counterproductive ways. Even if you’re on the same team as a passive aggressive colleague, this individual will likely still resent any sign that you’re outperforming them, even if your triumphs result in positive yields for your cohort of employees and the company.  

According to the Chicago Tribune, “if a co-worker starts to get the attention instead [of a passive aggressive employee], their jealous tendencies may show through in ways that make them an awful presence in the office. They might express jealousy upfront or through passive-aggressive behaviors, such as sarcastically telling the employee congratulations on getting a great opportunity. At the heart of jealousy lies insecurity. [These passive aggressive workers need to] realize that their coworker’s success in no way diminishes their own.” 

Speak to your manager if you notice this behavior. It kills morale, and it's not just affecting you. Seeing your successes smeared might keep your coworkers from celebrating their accomplishments or sharing their ideas. And that's not good for anyone.