Dealing With Passive-Aggressive People at Work? Here's How to Handle It

Working in a passive-aggressive environment? Here's how to tell and what you can do about it.

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Taylor Tobin1.84k
April 14, 2024 at 2:33AM UTC

We’ve all heard the old maxim that “hell is other people.”

When applied to the workplace, this saying can feel more accurate than ever...but because most office environments frown upon outright aggression between employees (for good reason!), work conflicts often occur in the strange, frustrating, and challenging limbo of passive-aggression. This type of inhibited communication and negative energy can massively stifle productivity and can turn an otherwise pleasant professional environment into a less-than-fun place to spend 40+ hours a week. 

Because passive-aggression is, by nature, difficult to define, we figured we’d offer some assistance. Here, you’ll find an overview of common passive-aggressive behaviors in the workplace, how passive-aggression manifests when coming from your boss, your colleague, or your direct report, and how to formulate a solid game plan for handling these challenges.

What is “passive-aggressive behavior”?

Merriam-Webster defines “passive-aggressive” as 

“being, marked by, or displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness).”

Essentially, passive-aggression is an avoidance of direct confrontation, replacing action with indirect gestures and conversations. For example, instead of telling a direct report that her presentation materials don’t meet expectations, a passive-aggressive manager might make oblique references to the fact that her subordinate arrived five minutes late to work that morning. 

Why does passive aggression impede a productive work environment?

Passive-aggression can feel like a safer way to express frustration than addressing issues in a straightforward manner...but these approaches almost never achieve their ultimate goal. To be a strong workplace collaborator, you must have the ability and willingness to speak directly and to handle challenges in a forthright manner. If you’re leaving your coworkers, supervisors and direct reports puzzling over your communication choices and feeling uncertain about your work-related misgivings, you’re creating additional problems rather than solving existing ones. 

What are some examples of passive-aggression at work?

From your boss

  • If your boss consistently withholds praise (or any feedback in general)

Bosses with strong management skills don’t hesitate to offer their employees feedback on their performances. Of course, a good manager must have the wherewithal and proactive nature to give her direct reports constructive criticism when necessary, but she also knows the importance of offering her employees praise when they produce excellent work. If your boss has passive-aggressive tendencies, you may notice a lack of concrete either direction. 

  • If your boss places undue importance on nitpicky rules and details

Plenty of excellent bosses take pride in their attention to detail. However, if your supervisor regularly emphasizes very minor work aspects and places more weight on them than is necessary or warranted, it may be an example of passive-aggressive behavior. 

  • If your boss doesn't encourage employees to pursue opportunities for professional growth
A boss who avoids opportunities to submit her employees for professional opportunities may be passive-aggressively indicating her dissatisfaction with her reports' performance. If you notice this lack of activity from your own supervisor, you may need to ask her about it directly in order to push your way through the passive-aggressive haze.

From your colleagues

  • If your colleague conducts all communication via email, even if it makes more sense to discuss face-to-face

In the 21st century, many professionals in a wide variety of fields conduct a significant portion of their business over email. It’s clear, efficient, and a generally useful way to communicate information, particularly info that’s neither sensitive nor urgent. However, passive-aggressive colleagues may take their email enthusiasm to a problematic extent, engaging in work discussions exclusively through the email medium, even if talking through a problem or a question face-to-face or over the phone proves more expedient and productive.

  • If your colleague procrastinates when collaborating

Do you frequently find yourself chasing down a coworker to get her project contributions in a timely manner? Does she regularly complete her assignments late, therefore hindering the progress of the group as a whole? These delays could be her passive-aggressive alternatives to clearly articulating her complaints with the project.

From your direct reports

  • If your direct report consistently goes over your head with work-related concern

As a manager, you should establish yourself as your direct reports’ first stop for on-the-job questions, issues, or concerns. If your employees consistently go over your head and bring their queries to your supervisor, they may be passive-aggressively (and, in most contexts, inappropriately) communicating their dissatisfaction with your management style.

  • If your report refuses to take responsibility for their errors

If you spot a mistake in your direct report’s work and bring it to her attention, it’s in her best interest (and your best interest as her supervisor) for her to accept responsibility for her error and to work with you to create a plan for rectifying it. An employee who refuses to admit to her participation in a mistake (and/or who tries to blame the snafu on others with no cause) can contribute to a culture of avoidance in your workplace, which interrupts forward momentum.

How to handle passive-aggression in the workplace

Respond to the passive-aggression with direct and clear communication

While it can be tempting to “fight fire with fire” and respond to passive-aggressive behavior with your own brand of indirect conflict, you’re far more likely to yield useful results by countering passive-aggression with straightforward language and clear discourse. While maintaining a courteous and respectful communication style, be honest and upfront with your colleagues; even if they respond with further passive-aggression, you’ll know that you did your best to address the issues.

Use your emotional intelligence to guide your responses 

When it comes to dealing with workplace passive-aggression, emotional intelligence is your strongest ally. In a recent piece about how to handle passive-aggression at the office, Glassdoor recommends creating a space where your passive-aggressive coworker feels respected and able to express herself: “That means asking probing questions and using phrases like: ‘Help me understand…’ ‘I’m listening…’ and ‘Can you fill me in…’ The logic behind this? ‘All they want is to be heard,’ [recruiting expert Renee] Frey says. ‘If they are not sharing their frustration, verbally communicate to them that they can trust you and share their true thoughts and feelings. This enables them to feel more comfortable and share more openly.’”

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