Passive on the outside, aggressive on the inside. You know the type; they’re the ones who never say to you what they are thinking. They are happy to mutter under their breath, complain to everyone else, or resort to underhanded tactics to get their way. We’ve all had to deal with them, and they can be incredibly frustrating and potentially dangerous.
Passive-aggressive behavior takes many forms, but it refers to someone adopting indirect expressions of negative feelings instead of openly addressing them, such as manipulation, hostility, or noncooperation. Someone who commits to deadlines yet never delivers on them demonstrates passive-aggressive behavior. They commit but never address the fact that they cannot deliver by the deadline. Other examples include sarcasm, talking behind your back, and the silent treatment.
In a 2022 survey by Preply.com, we find that 20% of coworkers are passive-aggressive, 73% of us have experienced it at work, and 52% it is at least once per week. 69% of respondents think we are more passive-aggressive online than in person.
Ignoring can be dangerous as it can create a toxic work environment, affect morale and productivity, and damage relationships. It can be equally damaging to deal with them in the “wrong” way and have it all backfire. It takes planning and preparation to deal with passive-aggressive coworkers. Warning signs are clear, although we often justify that they are trying to be funny or are unaware of their behavior. To be clear, no one “thinks” they are displaying passive-aggressive behavior, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t.
Examples of passive-aggressive comments at work:
* It must be nice to work with all the big shots at work. You get all the perks they get while the rest of us work down here in the trenches and get nothing.
* I wish I could afford to go on vacation like you do. Your photos online are beautiful. Instead, I have to pay the rent.
* You’re too sensitive
* No offense, but ….
* I was just kidding
If those sound familiar, you are working with passive-aggressive coworkers. If you recognize you’ve said those things, stop. The same survey says that 82% of us admit to being passive-aggressive.
26% of people shift blame (such as, “You’re too sensitive” or “Why are you getting upset?”), 24% display fake politeness, 16% are patronizing, and 15% deny they are angry (“Whatever”).
Dealing with their comments and behavior also takes effort and attention. Here are some quick tips to help you deal with your passive-aggressive coworkers:
- Be assertive and ask questions. Don’t be aggressive or passive-aggressive in response; instead, ask questions about the comment. “Do you think I have a cushy job because I work with the Board of Directors?” “Why are you feel I’m too sensitive?” “What does ‘whatever’ mean?” Expect pushback, denial, and more passive-aggressive behavior, though, which is why we need to be prepared to have the full conversation instead of sending out an aggressive question with nothing to substantiate it.
- Know your boundaries. You are not going to respond to every passive-aggressive situation. Know where your boundaries are, what you will deal with, and what you will ignore.
For instance, I ignore the comments and gossip about my money, vacations, weight, and clothes. I don’t ignore the comments that will affect my reputation. If a colleague tells me that they will do something by the deadline but then don’t, I will ask questions, follow up, and ensure we are on the same page. By them telling me they will do something and then not do it, it does potentially affect my reputation, so I don’t look the other way.
- Establish respect. Respect is the foundation of any healthy relationship. You won’t get respect if you don’t give it, so don’t display passive-aggressive behavior. Be respectful when you ask questions, keep the sarcasm out of your voice, and be sure not to run and tell others what just happened.
Is it possible they perceive you as being passive-aggressive or aggressive, and this is their response? Hold your own behavior accountable to help establish respect.
- Be solution focused vs. blame. When dealing with passive-aggressive coworkers, focus the conversation on solutions rather than placing blame. If necessary, make clear deadlines and clear expectations on behavior.
For instance, “I find that it undermines my ability to do my job when emails are not returned in a timely fashion. We have a 24-hour standard, and I don’t get your responses within that time. Can we agree to respond within the 24-hour expectation?”
This is much better than, “You never return my emails within the 24-hour standard. I must follow up constantly, you always have excuses, and it is never your fault. My reputation is on the line, and you don’t seem to care. Why?”
- Know when to walk away. You may choose to have a confrontation about their passive-aggressive behavior only to have them respond in a very aggressive manner. Identify when tensions have risen, and you cannot have a civil conversation. You may need a break to keep yourself professional and calm.
- Remain professional at all times. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you. It is easy to become defensive but focus on creating solutions instead of blame or hostility. Instead of displaying the same unprofessional behaviors, focus on your professionalism.
- Don’t take it personally. When others are passive-aggressive, it is a symptom of their insecurities and vulnerabilities. They don’t know how to act assertively with you for various reasons. Let it go, and don’t take it personally. It has very little to do with you and much more to do with them.
Dealing with passive-aggressive coworkers is exhausting and draining, as coworkers generally hate confrontation. However, it is exhausting and draining to ignore it, too, as silence is perceived as permission.
Be professional. Be prepared. Know what you will say and when you will say it.
And above all else, don’t be passive-aggressive back.