You’re having a conversation at work. It sounds normal enough, but something doesn’t feel right, and you can’t put your finger on what. Your colleague is telling you something without telling you something. They’re being passive aggressive.
Passive aggression in the workplace can divert focus from the organization’s objectives and negatively impact office morale. Here are a few reasons why passive aggressive behavior in the workplace occurs, potential causes, and how it can be addressed.
Why passive aggressive behavior can spread at work
Much of what goes on at work triggers strong feelings. Promotions, raises, and public recognition of achievements often spark complex emotions surrounding personal or professional goals, self-worth, and self-esteem.
To complicate matters, professional communication is nuanced; there is no safe outlet for some feelings. Honest responses or candid evaluations may at times feel inappropriate and can even violate workplace policies. As a result, words and actions are chosen with extreme care–and with the gilded professional speak many have to abide by, indirect solutions to problems flourish.
Why passive aggressive behavior is harmful and how to identify it
Passive aggression can disrupt a productive environment and if left unchecked, can lead to an influx of harmful, extreme, and entirely unprofessional behaviors such as gossip, sabotage, and retaliation. If you’ve encountered the following behaviors from colleagues at work, you’ve dealt with passive aggressive behavior:
- Ignoring proper channels in the workplace to deal with issues and instead, utilizing dysfunctional methods (gossip, spreading rumors, constant complaining)
- Calling out of work on the day of a presentation–sabotaging collaborative efforts
- Relying on continual, plausible excuses to avoid taking on certain responsibilities
- Other telltale signs of passive aggressive behavior include:
- Silent treatment
- Withholding of praise
- Consistent unreliability: being late and non-responsive
How to deal with other people’s passive aggression
To deal with this kind of behavior, it’s helpful to recognize it for what it is, and where it may be coming from. People who feel marginalized, defenseless, and powerless at work will sometimes engage in this behavior because they:
- feel they are victims in negative circumstances that are beyond their control,
- aren’t ready or willing to create positive change in their lives,
- or have strong, deep-rooted fears direct of conflict and confrontation.
Try not to let this behavior get under your skin and utilize positive tactics to bring change to your work culture. If it’s coming from a co-worker or subordinate, here are a few hints on how to address the issue:
- Take the time to confront the employee or coworker who is being passive aggressive.
- Try to avoid holding this conversation in an area of the office that can be overheard by your colleagues.
- Calmly identify their behavior–be specific, and avoid using general language such as “you always call in sick and miss the staff meeting,” or “you never respond to emails.”
- Reference one or more occasion where their behavior has derailed a project and discuss why it’s an ongoing problem.
- Try to address the root of their behavior by asking about their motivations in a friendly but firm way, and try to find out why they are feeling hostile or angry.
- Even if you are the cause of their hostility, rise above their anger and try to remove your own emotions from the conversation, making every attempt to create a safe space for them to talk about their issues and resolve the matter.
- Recommend better future solutions to their issues such as discussing the problem with the parties involved, or reaching out to human resources.
After this confrontation, here’s how you can try to be a consistent role model for open and honest communication in your interactions at work:
- Make a point of listening and responding to feedback and avoid punishing people who publicly disagree with you.
- Allow for and encourage one-on-one conversations to receive feedback and clarify expectations.
- Pay close attention to what’s not being said in your workspace. Evaluate and reevaluate your work culture–are there hostilities or resentments festering in the silence?
If it’s coming from a manager, you may have to utilize some managing up tactics to address the communication or behavior issue.
How to be more direct
If you’re reading this and thinking some of these behaviors sound too familiar, it’s okay. To address your own possible issues with passive aggressive behavior, determine where your hostility is coming from, and recognize that this form of expression likely won’t solve your problems. Here are a few ways to move forward:
- Be mindful and remain aware of your feelings. While work is supposed to be a bit more of a stoic environment, there are major triggers in countless professional situations. Acknowledge where your behavior is coming from, and if you are having strong feelings, are you also disconnecting your actions from your emotions?
- Find a healthier voice at work by utilizing assertive communication–a nonreactive and respectful way to interact. This type of communication isn’t just about getting your way–you need to consider the other side, even though you don’t have to agree. Approach this interaction as if you both want to solve a problem.
- Recognize and confront your fear of conflict, and make attempts to engage in respectful confrontation.
Work relations will always have their challenges and managing those emotions that come along with the ups and downs of your professional life can be rocky. Most offices have human resource departments and other protocols set up to help. Try to utilize these pathways.
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About the Author | With a background in the performing arts and journalism, Caroline Rodriguez understands the chaotic course of career change. She’s been a reporter, teacher, and co-manager of a yoga resort. Her passions include women’s rights and encouraging girls to study science.