How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive Behaviour at Work

May 08, 2024 4 Min Read
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At some point in your career, you may encounter a team member or colleague who is acting passive-aggressively.

You know the type. You can sense an underlying tension or aggression, but it’s not communicated directly. Instead, the behaviour is indirect and sometimes covert. The person expresses feelings and thoughts about situations in a way that’s often unhelpful.

Instead of directly addressing the issue, tension or conflict, they’ll resort to behavioural tactics such as procrastinating, going slow or not completing tasks effectively. They may withhold information, be sarcastic or make subtle digs, and give you the ‘silent treatment’.

Inside, they harbour feelings of resentment and can feel injustice, dissatisfaction, emotionally distant, and even hostility. Ultimately, their approach damages relationships and outcomes and harms the team’s dynamics.

Working with people like this can be complex. If you confront them about the issue, they will likely deny that anything is wrong and avoid accountability for their actions. They’ll seek to excuse, deflect, or blame others or feign ‘nothing to see here’.

Understand the Cause

There are various schools of thought as to why this behavioural pattern emerges.

For some researchers, it’s seen as a defence mechanism that people use to deal with unresolved inner conflicts that they don’t have the ability or willingness to express directly. For example, they don’t want to face uncomfortable emotions, so they use this behavioural strategy to protect themselves.

Others see it as a more learned behavioural trait, where the person has learned from past situations that directly expressing their emotions isn’t acceptable and can lead to negative consequences.

For example, when a person feels powerless to express how they feel and fears the consequences of doing so, taking a passive-aggressive approach can help them feel like they have some influence or more control.

Spot the Warning Signs

Spotting the warning signs of passive-aggressiveness can be difficult, particularly since they can be subtle and often indirect. However, given the negative impact they can have, you want to be alert to their presence.

Here are a few indicators that are often indicative of this type of behaviour:

  • Your team member doesn’t directly communicate dissatisfaction or concerns about issues. Instead, they rely on gossip, hinting, back-channelling and sarcasm.
  • Your team member fails to take accountability for their actions, and when things go wrong, they seek to deflect and blame others.
  • They actively undermine other team members and colleagues by spreading rumours, gossiping, and questioning work in a deliberately unhelpful way.
  • They don’t raise concerns about change or issues with you but instead, raise them one-on-one with team members and seek to destabilise or subtly resist change efforts.

Of course, spotting these signs will be even more complicated if your team members don’t trust you. And, if your leadership style is causing some of the team’s passive-aggressiveness, then you have a lot of work to do.

Strategies to Deploy

Simply hoping that the passive-aggressive behaviour will go away won’t help. Neither does ignoring the impact such behaviour has on team morale and dynamics and your team’s outcomes.

You need to address it.

Firstly, you want to acknowledge what’s happening. Address the behaviour directly and in a non-confrontational manner. Use “I” statements to express your observations and feelings without blaming the team member. For example, you might say, “I’ve noticed some tension, and I’d like to understand what’s happening.”

It’s crucial to approach the situation with empathy and a genuine desire to understand and resolve the underlying issues. Don’t jump to conclusions about the cause of their behaviour and avoid labelling it. Telling someone you think they are being passive-aggressive won’t help you shift the behaviour.

Be calm, professional, clear and direct about the concerning behaviours. Instead of making general statements, outline specific examples of the behaviour that is concerning you and highlight their impacts on them, you, and the team.

In your conversation, nurture a safe and open space to talk. Encourage them to express their feelings and thoughts. It helps to recognise that behaviour of this nature is often a sign of underlying issues or stress. So, offer support and create the space for them to be heard.

You can offer support while simultaneously holding them accountable. You do this by listening and working with them to help uncover issues and derive solutions.

For example, you might discuss alternative, more direct and effective communication and problem-solving approaches. You can offer constructive feedback on how they can better express their concerns and deal with conflict. You might outline what transparent, progressive and constructive communication looks like while clearly communicating the expectations about performance and behaviours.

Discover: The Behaviours of Emotionally Intelligent Teams

At the appropriate time, you will want to outline the consequences for continuing behaviour that is not in line with the organisation’s and team’s values and ways of working.

It’s essential to accept that conversations of this nature are not ‘one and done’. You’ll likely need to set the groundwork for the conversation, then have a series of discussions to uncover the root cause and agree on strategies to help your team member shift their approach.

Promote a Supportive Team Environment

While the strategies outlined above are focused on individual efforts, you should consider the steps you take to foster a positive and inclusive team environment.

This environment is one where transparency, empathy, respect, and cooperation are valued, and team members support each other and hold to those agreed standards.

The right team environment will reduce the likelihood of passive-aggressive behaviour emerging.

Also, remember that your behaviour sets the standard.

You want to be a role model for transparency, directness, and clear communication and consistently demonstrate your adeptness at addressing issues constructively.

As the film composer, John Power, said “Communication works for those who work at it.”

Republished with courtesy from michellegibbings.com

Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the award-winning author of three books. Her latest book is 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one'. www.michellegibbings.com.

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