Tips for Dealing With a Passive Aggressive Personality at Work

If you’re being driven nuts by someone at work who sulks, procrastinates and writes you snarky emails, it could be that you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive personality type. The only thing that makes it worse is if that person is your boss.  It’s time to learn to handle such behavior and not lose your cool.

Have you ever worked with someone who agrees to help you with a report, but never comes through?

When asked about it, the person has several different excuses. But you get the feeling the person really doesn’t want to help you and would even like to see you to get in trouble with the boss for a late report.

Welcome to the passive-aggressive workplace.

While the causes behind passive aggressive behavior can be complex, the reality is that if you work with such a colleague it can be difficult and stressful – and even worse if the passive aggressive person is your boss.

Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker and author of “The Angry Smile,” says that passive aggression is defined as “as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger and can involve behaviors that are designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger.”

But the passive-aggressive person also believes life will “only get worse if other people know of his anger, so he expresses anger indirectly,” she says.

That’s why you may see the passive-aggressive person become withdrawn and sulky, and begin to procrastinate or do substandard work, she says. The person may also find ways to “exact hidden revenge,” or sabotage group projects, she adds.

Avoid tit-for-tat

Preston Ni, author of “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People,” writes that passive-aggressive types are “uncomfortable to experience” and “repeat their subterfuge behavior over time.”

If this person is a colleague, you may see missed deadlines, sick days taken when they will wreak the most havoc for others and “forgetting to pass on critical pieces of information,” Whitson explains.

Unfortunately, the teamwork necessary in many workplaces today “is a great venue for passive aggressive obstructionism and loss of accountability,” Whitson explains.

The favored “cover actions” undertaken by even one passive aggressive team member can not only unravel a team, but sabotage entire projects “in a subtle enough way that his responsibility is not readily apparent – or can be tenaciously justified,” she explains.

If it’s the boss who is the passive aggressive, then he or she may seek to undermine some employees by giving them unwieldy assignments or low-ranking tasks. Or, the boss may hold some team members to very strict standards “in order to catch them not meeting expectations,” Whitson explains.

But it doesn’t stop there: Such bosses may also change the rules or standards midway through a project just to “frustrate” workers, she says.

“Workers are in a tough position when faced with a passive aggressive boss,” Whitson admits. “The best antidote to passive aggression, however, is direct, honest, assertive communication.”

That means workers need to “steadfastly refuse to engage in a tit-for-tat” and “maintain crystal-clear expectations regarding what is expected of them,” she says.

Ni writes that passive aggressives at work are often more difficult to deal with than those who are openly hostile because the person “operates on a hidden script, and you never know when you might be disenfranchised by the passive aggressive’s covert machinations.”

He agrees with Whitson that you must avoid getting sucked into tit-for-tat disagreements with the person because you will only be met with denials and possibly face more hostility in the future. In addition, you need to avoid getting sucked into an argument for your own peace of mind, he says.

“Don’t give someone the power to turn you into the type of person you don’t like to be,” he writes.

Whitson says that passive aggressive behavior thrives in the workplace because people may feel unable to voice their feelings in such an environment.

“People don’t always feel like they can be emotionally honest with someone who’s in charge of their paycheck, so they find indirect, passive aggressive ways to communicate their discontent in the workplace,” she says. “Words in the workplace must be chosen with extreme care, thereby making it an ideal environment for passive aggression.”

At the same time, just the sheer number of waking hours spent at work means we build relationships – and there are always passive-aggressive types in any relationship, she says.

The Perfect Office Crime

Another issue that workers must deal with today is the passive-aggressive’s use of email to provide what Whitson calls “the ideal cover.”

She explains that while face-to-face conversations, body language and tone of voice can betray someone’s anger or hostility, email allows employees and bosses to hide their true nature.

“By its very nature, passive aggressive behaviors are subtle, hidden and coded, which makes it easy to rationalize, justify, and evade traditional discipline, “Whitson says. “In a workplace setting, the passive aggressive person’s piece-by-piece acts of insubordination and sabotage are often extremely hard to nail down, which is why we often call passive aggressive behavior the perfect office crime.”

So how do you handle a passive aggressive at work while staying professional? Ni advises there are several ways to deal with such a situation, such as:

  • Remembering your role. No passive-aggressive is going to listen to you talking about his or her behavior, and you’re just going to end up frustrated and disappointed.  “A passive- aggressive person changes only when he or she becomes more self-aware and matures. It’s not your job to change the person,” Ni says.
  • Using humor. Ni says that sometimes using appropriate humor in the face of mild passive aggressive behavior can “shine light on the truth, disarm difficult behavior, and show that you have superior composure.”
  • Refusing to tolerate damaging patterns. In serious situations, set the tone with the passive aggressive by formalizing your communications. Put things in writing or ask someone to witness the conversation. “Avoid making accusations and statements that begin with the word ‘you,’ which are more likely to trigger defensiveness. Instead, use sentences that begin with ‘I,’ ‘it’, ‘we,’ ‘let’s’ and ‘this,’ followed by facts,” he says.
  • Giving them a voice. Many passive aggressives behave as they do because they don’t feel heard. If it’s appropriate, let the person be part of solving challenges, such as asking: “Given the desired outcome, how would you handle the issue?” If all you get are complaints, stay neutral and tell them you’ll keep their thoughts in mind.
  • Establishing consequences.  As Whitson notes, passive aggressive colleagues often can be full of excuses or blame others. Ni says when they start using such tactics, “declare what YOU’RE willing to do going forward.” Then, state a couple of consequences of what will happen if the passive aggressive doesn’t reconsider his or her behavior.

Ni and Whitson stress that while passive aggressive types can be difficult to work with, the reality is that you’re probably going to work with one or more in your career. By learning to understand their traits and how to deal with them, you can minimize the damage to your productivity and that of your team.

How have you dealt with a passive-aggressive person at work?

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Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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  • SumUWin

    Thank you for this article. I found myself melting into a sea of tears when confronted again in email with a serial passive aggressor and this article explains the behavior very well. As a more direct communicator, I have fumbled this encounter way too many times. Now, I feel armed and ready.

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