How to Deal With Passive-Aggression at Work

There's plenty of information and advice out there for people who have to deal with outright jerks in the workplace -- the bullies, the bad bosses, the yellers and screamers who make each day fraught with tension. But what about the folks who don't make a big stink, but drive us crazy trying to guess what they really want, and whether or not it's in our best interests to give it to them? For workers toiling alongside the passive-aggressive, the trick is to identify the behaviors before they undermine your productivity, job satisfaction, and corporate culture.

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(Photo Credit: Teerapun/freedigitalphotos.net)

At Forbes, Amy Rees Anderson offers a few tips for recognizing passive-aggression in the workplace. A few things to look out for are people who:

  • Go behind co-workers' backs, or constantly say one thing, and do another.
  • Blame others for their mistakes, or claim that they agree with you, but that they are powerless to effect change.
  • Often bust out the old "I was just kidding" line, (especially when it becomes apparent that no one agrees with them).

As you can see, the bottom line is that passive-aggressive co-workers aren't honest, and the best way to counter that is to be honest yourself -- in the most respectful way possible.

"Honesty with respect is always the best policy, in life and in the workplace," writes Rees Anderson. "Voicing your opinions, if done in a respectful way, is always positive and should be welcomed, encouraged, and even rewarded. Don't allow passive-aggressive behavior to exist in your company. If it exists today, change it. Remove those people who perpetuate the behavior, starting with those in leadership positions and send the message that this behavior will not be tolerated."

And if you're not in a position of power, or worse yet, your boss is the person who's eroding the culture? There are a few things you can do to keep yourself above the fray, while trying to work for real change:

1. Don't get sucked into participating in the behavior.

"It's understandable to be upset when you're on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior," writes Preston Ni at Psychology Today. "There may be an urge to 'strike back' overtly by arguing and using pointed language, or worse yet, become passive-aggressive yourself. Neither approach is helpful, as the passive-aggressive will likely respond to your overt accusations with denial and victimhood, and to any passive aggressiveness on your part with even more covert hostility. All the while, you're suffering because you have allowed this instigator to take away your equanimity. Don't give someone the power to turn you into the type of person you don't like to be."

2. Keep your distance.

Whenever possible, put space between you and this person. That's obviously not much help if your direct supervisor is the problem, but if it's a teammate, you're best served staying at far away from the problem as possible.

If your boss is the problem, it might be time to look for a better situation, either by looking for opportunities to work for someone else within your company or by finding a new job outside the organization.

3. Break it down into practical steps.

Whether you're dealing with a co-worker or a manager, by approaching the problem in a realistic way, you can make your day-to-day more pleasant and productive. If you're forced to work with the person, schedule regular check-ins to make sure you're on the same page, remain straightforward (and as much as possible, unemotional) in your own communication, and try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt whenever you can.

Above all, remember that you don't have control over other people's behavior -- only your reaction to it. Concentrate on what you can to do to make your work life better, and don't let less functional co-workers involve you in their drama.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you dealt with a passive-aggressive co-worker -- or worse, boss? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

3 Comments

  1. 3 Kite 22 Nov
    ELIZABETH When you realized your boss made a mistake with the documents did copy "her" boss onto the email as well?? So, you called your boss out on an email that you copied "her" boss on? If this was done maybe you could have went about this differently. Elizabeth, I think you should have directly went to your boss or emailed her only first. Maybe I'm reading your paragraph wrong. Forgive me.
  2. 2 Leanne 22 Aug
    I have been dealing with a passive agressive coworker for a few years now. It used to be wearing and I would get upset. After a while the behaviour just gets old. This person seems to be incapable of change and does not recognize that trying to mow down a coworker on the way down the hall is not the way to behave. She has created all this drama and now she is upset about it. She is so white and tight lipped - the cords in her neck stand out whenever she has to speak to me. Her energy is very bad and I stay away from her as much as possible. She had a car accident a while back, was very stressed and I helped her through the incident. I thought that perhaps our relationship would change after that. I was wrong. No matter what I do, she goes back to being the same aggressive, rude, and nasty person. It is my belief that management has encouraged her behaviour by not dealing with her. She is mean and abusive every day. I try to stay positive, but quite frankly, I have just given up. I want nothing to do with her and can no longer see any value in her at all.
  3. 1 Elizabeth 08 May

    My boss is just like this. Yesterday she made a mistake running a bunch of documents incorrectly. I caught the first one, and emailed feedback to her and the big boss who had asked for our direct input on them originally. My boss didn't read my email (or chose to ignore it in her haste). When I checked back later and noticed she'd run a bunch more, I emailed them both asking if there was still time for it to be changed, or just to let it go. The big boss said to do whatever to make it right, but my boss somehow missed that email too, and kept on going. The next day she frantically looked for me to find out what was going on. Of course, it was all in the email strings, but by that point she was so flustered she couldn't think. She kept pressing me about my part and while ultimately she ended up changing the documents, it was clear for the rest of the day that I was in the doghouse. No matter what I wrote to her, whatever the topic, she'd say "What do you mean? I don't understand." Then she'd throw out some lame thing she thought I'd meant which had nothing to do with the matter, but yet somehow it managed to insult me while keeping her nose clean. She is so devious that if she even gets a whiff that I'm responding in kind, she'll turn to the big boss, or whoever, and make these nice sugary sweet comments about me with just enough twist of doubt that somehow manages to cast a pall on my abilities. Then I have to work my way back up to gaining these people's respect, because of course she happens to hob nob with the big wigs so I can't afford to retaliate in any overt way. Or even just do a good job period, because it will overshadow her. It pretty much sucks.

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