Recognizing Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Work

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Have you ever worked with someone who seemed to enjoy making other people angry? The sort of person who deals in backhanded compliments, makes others the butt of their jokes, puts up hostile sticky notes or intentionally ruins team projects? If so, you've witnessed passive aggressive behavior in action.


Passive aggression is typically defined as behavior that is a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden anger. Since they aren't able to address their anger directly, they look for other ways to “get back at” whomever they are mad. The people who behave this way seem to derive genuine pleasure from making others angry while they sit back and watch it happen.


Because most people spend more time in the workplace than anywhere other than their home, combined with the competitive yet professional atmosphere, where direct confrontation is discouraged, the office is often the primary place where this sort of dysfunctional behavior plays out. It can cause a great deal of inter-office conflict and can even drive the best employees to quit or request transfers to other departments.


Since the nature of this type of aggression is hidden, it can be difficult for others, especially supervisors, to recognize and address it. Even though the anger is being acted out in a covert way, it has the same negative impact as outright hostility and bullying.


If you recognize this sort of behavior in one or more of your co-workers or employees, it might be time to address the conduct or deal with the underlying anger. Here are a few of the more common phrases used by passive aggressive employees:


I'll get it to you first thing tomorrow” - Procrastination and stalling are classic tools of a passive aggressive person in the workplace. They will agree to a task verbally, but then put off actually doing it in order to frustrate the people who are relying on them. Eventually, someone will either force the person to do the task or will simply give up and do it themselves. If the passive-aggressive person is forced to actually do the unwanted task, they will often move on to one of these other phrases.


I didn't get the message” or “No one ever told me” - Of course, there are times when all of us have simply not understood directions or have missed several emails. However, when a passive-aggressive person is trying to absolve themselves of any sort of responsibility, they often claim that they didn't hear the instructions, that no one ever told them or that they didn't get the email/memo/notice.


I thought you knew” - Sometimes, a passive-aggressive employee will deliberately not share important information or intentionally create a problem for the person they are angry with, causing all sorts of problems or delays. Then, when confronted, they will claim that they simply thought everyone else had the same information that they did. A good example of this is an employee who “forgets” to inform their co-worker about a schedule change for an important meeting, even when their boss asked them to inform everyone, knowing that it would cause them to miss it and get in trouble.


When you didn't get back to me, I just asked your boss” - A passive-aggressive worker seems to enjoy any chance they have to make someone else look bad in front of superiors. They will often go over the head of the person they are angry with and make them appear to be unresponsive or just plain incompetent.


You have unrealistic expectations” - When they are actually put on the spot and are forced to complete a task that they dislike, they will often do it poorly. A passive-aggressive person might deliberately work below standards on team projects and, when asked about it, will claim that everyone has unrealistic expectations and they just want things done their way. Passive-aggressive peopl play up their roles as victims and cause everyone else to question whether or not they are being overly picky or demanding too much from their teammates. For the offender, the hope is that they aren't asked to do the task again because it's too much trouble.


Passive-aggressive employees love to create drama. When they are allowed to continue this behavior unchecked, employee morale and the workplace culture can be severely impacted. No one wants to work with someone who enjoys setting them up and watching them fail. If you see this behavior at work, look for ways to address the underlying anger in order to improve the situation.


Have you ever had to work with a passive aggressive person? Please share your stories in the comments.


Image Source: MorgueFile


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  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    @Sally - You have a great point. When they are confronted, passive-aggressive people will continue to escalate things, trying to win back the upper hand. Consistency is key, but how can you be sure that the boundaries are respected by everyone?
  • Sally A. R
    Sally A. R
    I think all of us have had to deal with a passive-agressive employee. Unfortunately, it takes a great deal of patience and professionalism to handle their response once challenged to change their behavior. A passive-agressive individual will often times use hostility or drama, as you mentioned, as a form of defense. The secret is to be consistent and establish boundaries for their behavior.
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