Passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace is a type of covert aggression. The person (or group of people) who is being passive-aggressive is usually either angry at their employer or their coworkers.
For some reason, they are dissatisfied with their work situation, and they are using covert tactics to retaliate.
This can be a critical issue for an organization. It can lead to all sorts of complications between colleagues.
Coworkers who have passive-aggressive tendencies can be quite difficult to work with. Usually, they exhibit a host of counterproductive negative traits.
You have to consider the fact that the person who is being passive-aggressive might have legitimate grievances. However, their behavior is definitely not the right way to a happy resolution of their problem.
If left unchecked, passive-aggressive behavior can harm team dynamics, lower productivity, and cause psychological damage to staff members.
So here we will take a closer look at this type of attitude and present actionable strategies to deal with passive-aggressive coworkers.
Table of Contents
10 passive-aggressive examples at work
Passive aggression at work can come in many forms, not just the occasional snarky remarks and pouting.
In order to be absolutely certain that a colleague of yours is being deliberately passive-aggressive, monitor their behavior for a few days.
Here’s a list of typical passive-aggressive behaviors in the workplace
1. Snarky/subtle commentary
One of the more obvious signs of passive aggression is carefully crafted, subtle, sometimes seemingly innocent remarks that perfectly hit a nerve.
2. Mean hurtful critique disguised as work feedback
Sometimes the attack can be a bit more direct when it comes in the form of routine work-related feedback. However, the choice of words and delivery aim to cause psychological distress.
A bit of sarcasm between coworkers who are friendly toward each other is common. But sarcasm can be weaponized and used to insult a person in an indirect way.
Have you noticed that the person complains a lot but never seems to offer any reasonable solution to the problems that they see?
Gossip at work, talking behind one’s back, spreading rumors, defamation. Typical weapons in the arsenal of a passive-aggressive coworker.
6. Purposeful lateness
Being late to work or late to meetings is a simple and effective way to sabotage a workflow. Especially if there are work-related matters that can’t be conducted unless the person is present.
Taking too long to start working on important tasks can be seen as another form of passive aggression. Stalling at work, refusing to work optimally, and finding excuses why certain things are not done yet – these are expected from a person who is not happy with what is going on at work.
Keep in mind that laziness and inaction at work can also be considered a form of passive aggression at work.
8. Directed incompetence
A persona can simply pretend that they are unable to complete a certain task at work. This is another form of stalling and stunning the workflow.
9. Poor communication
Good communication is essential for teamwork. If you notice that the person is withholding critical information, this can be a sign that they are doing it for malicious purposes, knowing that the lack of communication will inflict more damage.
10. Manipulation and misdirection
Passive-aggressive people are often good liars and manipulators. They are careful with how they present information and what conversations they have. It can be hard to notice their schemes and plots.
Signs of a passive-aggressive coworker
Now let’s take a look at some typical traits of a coworker who is resorting to passive aggression.
The person is hard to work with. They resist new ideas and changes. They resist you every step along the way and make things more difficult by complicating them or finding excuses.
They avoid responsibility and lack initiative. It seems like they are just there – their function is reactive rather than proactive.
Most of the problems around them stem from inaction rather than taking action and making decisions. For example, they might have the tendency to ignore coworkers and even their boss.
3. Condescending arrogant demeanor
Would you describe your coworker as arrogant? Do they like to boast a lot? Are they condescending towards others?
Narcissists are notorious for being passive-aggressive. All people are narcissistic to some extent. But too much narcissism at work can be problematic. You can check out our complete guide on dealing with narcissistic coworkers.
What do you think of people who claim a moral high ground but act in a way that does not align with their “beliefs”?
Frequent complaining and an excessive focus on the difficult aspects of work.
Negative effects of passive-aggressive behavior at work
Passive aggression between coworkers is not conducive to great work. Here are some of the main negative consequences that it can lead to:
- Lack of trust
- Mental strain
- Overt aggression
- Workplace conflicts
- Lowered productivity
- Communication problems
One of the most common ways a passive-aggressive coworker could bring you harm is by throwing you under the bus in a private conversation with your boss.
That is why it is important to take action to protect yourself in case you think that your passive-aggressive coworker has a grudge against you.
How to deal with passive-aggressive coworkers
Here are a few steps that you can take in order to put an end to the passive-aggressive behavior of your coworker.
1. Understand their motives
It all comes down to why are they acting this way. What caused them to be unhappy with their work situation? Is this just how they are with everybody in their life or is this behavior related to their work alone?
2. Respond to their emotions
The only way to understand what is going to speak to your coworker. Do your best to figure out what is the source of their frustration. Where is all this negativity coming from?
3. Address their passive-aggressive behavior
When you speak to your coworker, tell them that their passive aggression is evident to everybody and it is becoming an issue.
4. Ask them what they want
Simply ask them what they want. What will it take for them to stop acting the way they do and work optimally?
5. Ask them to take ownership
Having personal or professional problems is not an excuse for passive-aggressive behavior that is causing harm and distress.
Ask the person to take ownership and responsibility for their problems and actions.
6. Allow a cool-off period
See if your conversation will bring a positive change. The conversation should serve as a reality check for the person. Hopefully, they will cease to be so negative.
7. Expose their failures
If the person continues to be passive-aggressive and this is detrimental to your work, then it is time to involve other people.
Speak to your boss and HR about your passive-aggressive coworker.
How to work with a passive-aggressive coworker
In case you have to work with a passive-aggressive person at work and nothing can be done about it, then here are
1. Emotional distance
Don’t take anything they say or do personally. Clearly, they don’t care about your feelings if they are being disrespectful toward you. Don’t give them the satisfaction of suffering.
2. Psychological safety
You can quietly start looking for another position within the company away from that person. Or you could be looking for other job opportunities.
It doesn’t mean that you have to take them. But just knowing that you have other options will give you psychological safety.
3. Be proactive about work
Focus on your work. Make sure to take care of your responsibilities. And don’t trust that person from now on with anything. You can count on them.
4. Protect your position and work
Don’t give that person access to anything sensitive. Be it access to your computer or documents that you are responsible for.
Who knows what they are capable of? Passive aggression at work can be a sign that you are dealing with a toxic coworker.
5. Form strategic workplace friendships
Chances are that you are not the only person who is the target of passive-aggressive attacks. So form alliances with other colleagues that you can trust. This way you can push back as a group.
How to set boundaries with passive-aggressive coworkers
If you decide to confront your passive-aggressive coworker, then you can use this opportunity to set boundaries with them.
This means clearly explaining to them the type of behavior that you are not going to tolerate.
1. Tell them to stop being disrespectful
Passive aggression is simply disrespectful. So tell your coworker to cease. And tell them to stop treating other coworkers like this.
2. Tell them to stop being sarcastic
It is clear to everyone that your coworker is using sarcasm in a hurtful way. They are not fooling anyone. So ask them nicely to stop.
3. Ask them to be professional
Go back to business as usual but make it clear that from now on your communication will be strictly professional. No more small talk and snarky commentary.
My experience dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker
As a project manager at an international tech company, I’ve faced numerous challenges over the years.
But there was one experience that was particularly thrilling, even borderline terrifying. It felt like I was living in a suspenseful thriller story, all due to a passive-aggressive coworker on my team.
Let’s call him Kevin.
Our team was responsible for developing a new mobile application, and each member had specific tasks assigned to them.
Kevin, a talented software engineer, was responsible for developing the core features of the app.
Right from the beginning, I sensed an unsettling vibe from him, as if he was secretly resentful of me.
One day, during a team meeting, I noticed Kevin’s indirect communication and the ambiguity in his responses. His sarcasm and insincerity would send shivers down my spine.
It was as if he was speaking in riddles, deliberately making it difficult for everyone to work with him.
As the weeks passed, the workplace conflict escalated. Kevin’s uncooperative attitude manifested in various forms, from procrastination to avoidance.
He would undermine my decisions and use nonverbal cues to express his disguised hostility, causing a ripple effect of tension among the team members.
One day, I found an anonymous, ominous note on my desk, stating that the project would fail miserably.
Although I couldn’t prove it, I had a gut feeling that Kevin was behind the unsettling message. My instincts screamed that it was his emotional manipulation at play.
Determined to address the situation, I confronted Kevin in a private meeting. As we sat in the dimly lit room, the atmosphere was thick with tension.
I attempted to discuss his passive-aggressive behavior, but he responded with the silent treatment, making the situation even more unnerving.
As I pressed on, Kevin suddenly changed his demeanor. He began to share his feelings of being underappreciated and undervalued within the team.
He also revealed that he had been dealing with personal issues outside of work, which had been affecting his mood and performance.
Though relieved by this revelation, I knew I had to tread carefully. I empathized with Kevin and proposed a plan of action to address his concerns and improve our working relationship.
I promised to recognize his contributions and provide opportunities for growth, while he agreed to communicate openly and work on his passive-aggressive tendencies.
Over time, the air of suspense and tension faded as Kevin’s attitude and behavior improved significantly. The team’s morale was restored, and our ability to work together efficiently returned.
This thrilling experience taught me the importance of addressing interpersonal conflicts early on, and the value of clear and open communication in maintaining a healthy work environment.
It also reminded me that beneath the surface of passive-aggressive behavior, there can be a complex web of emotions and personal struggles that, when untangled, can lead to growth and improvement for everyone involved.
Frequently asked questions about dealing with passive-aggressive coworkers
How do I know when it’s time to involve a supervisor or HR in addressing a passive-aggressive coworker’s behavior?
It may be time to involve a supervisor or HR if you have tried to address the issue directly with the coworker and have seen no improvement in their behavior, or if the situation is escalating and affecting your mental well-being, work performance, or overall team dynamics.
Can passive-aggressive behavior be changed, or is it a permanent trait?
Passive-aggressive behavior can be changed with effort and self-awareness. It is not necessarily a permanent trait. However, altering this behavior requires the individual to recognize their passive-aggressive tendencies, understand the impact of their actions on others, and actively work on developing healthier communication and conflict resolution skills. In some cases, professional help, such as therapy or counseling, may be beneficial in addressing the underlying issues that contribute to passive-aggressive behavior. It is important to remember that change takes time and may not happen overnight, but with commitment and support, improvement is possible.