You’ll no doubt meet someone in the workplace who’s passive-aggressive. Harvard research says these are the worst people you find at work because they are so common. Moreover, dealing with passive-aggressive behavior can be exhausting.
Don’t let them get away with it. You must address the situation right away before it escalates. But how do you do that?
I’m going to give you the 10 best strategies to deal with a passive-aggressive worker. I’ll also provide a few samples of writing up a passive-aggressive employee. But first…
What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
When we think of aggressiveness, it’s behavior that lashes out or uses harsh words. But passive aggression is a lot more subtle than that.
It’s the person who’s constantly sarcastic. The one who teases others to the point that it lets someone down. It’s the coworker who gives you the silent treatment when there is conflict. It’s even the employee who’s willing to accept tasks but doesn’t do them and gives endless excuses.
Here’s how Amy Rigby from Fingerprint of Success puts it:
Passive-aggressive behavior happens when someone expresses negative thoughts and feelings indirectly. Rather than talking directly and openly to you, they will find indirect ways to show how they really feel.
Other examples of passive aggressive behavior at work
To help you in writing up a passive-aggressive employee, you need to pinpoint these workers. But passive aggression can show itself in so many different ways. Here are just a few other examples to help you identify these people at work:
- They intentionally become inefficient. To show their displeasure, passive-aggressive people may purposefully hinder productivity. They will do their tasks but with lots of errors. They may conveniently delete a document and blame it on technical problems or others.
- They try to make others look bad. This is most commonly done by spreading rumors. If they are angry at their boss or manager, they will try to turn their coworkers against these work leaders instead of taking the issue to the person involved.
- They are always late. To show that they don’t care about the job, a passive-aggressive coworker might come in late to work so others will have to wait for them.
- They undermine team projects. To do this, a passive aggressive coworker may withhold important information or not point out a mistake they noticed. It may also involve calling in sick right before a team project deadline or becoming very busy when someone needs their help.
- They blame others indirectly. They make vague or ambiguous statements to blame others indirectly. For example, they say, “Mistakes were made, but we won’t dwell on who made them,”. This is a way of assigning blame without directly addressing the issue or taking responsibility.
- They steal. When passive-aggressive employees are angry, they want to steal from their bosses. This can include actual stealing of supplies. Or, it can be that they use company equipment for other personal things.
- They are always negative. These people always find ways to complain about the workplace or a colleague. They downplay or ignore achievements from others. They never give any praise or compliments. Everything is negative, negative, negative.
- They say something nice but with the opposite attitude. OK, some passive-aggressive people can give praise and compliments when it’s due. However, they say it with a tone, facial expression, and gesture that says the total opposite.
- They talk behind people’s backs. They can appear nice to the person when they’re face-to-face. However, when that person is gone, the passive-aggressive colleague talks all kinds of bad things about them.
10 Strategies to Deal With a Passive-Aggressive Coworker or Employee
From the examples above, you can see why passive-aggressive people negatively affect the workplace. And that’s not good. A Forbes study showed that workers become 20% more productive with a positive work environment.
So if you’re dealing with passive-aggressive employees, here are 10 strategies to consider to fix their behavior in the workplace:
- Identify the specific behavior
- Talk to the offender
- Stay calm
- Don’t play their game
- Determine the root cause of the problem
- Create a safe environment
- Provide careful feedback
- Offer training
- Take care of yourself
- Set clear standards and consequences
1. Identify the specific behavior
As I said, passive aggression is subtle. It won’t be easy to identify it. This is why it’s crucial to know how a passive-aggressive employee acts (check the samples above).
What makes you think a certain employee or coworker is being passive aggressive? What actions are they doing? Do they do it regularly or just once? These are some questions that you should ask yourself.
To answer them, you need to keep a close eye on this certain person. Be watchful and document how they act, what they do and say, how they behave… And make sure you only go with facts. It’s so easy to judge someone when we’re annoyed with them.
Once you’re certain that this person is passive-aggressive in a specific way, it’s easier to find methods to deal with them. This will help you become more effective in your mission to improve their behavior.
2. Talk to the offender
Avoiding directness with each other is a passive-aggressive behavior. You don’t want to follow suit. This is why you should always go and talk to the offender.
Sometimes, an employee or coworker doesn’t realize they’re being passive aggressive. The best way to fix that is to tell them about it. Of course, you should never accuse them. Use an empathic approach instead.
Say the offender knows exactly what they’re doing. In this case, you may have to use more firmness and assertiveness when talking to them. Still, always, always remember to stay calm.
3. Stay calm
You may make the situation worse if you react emotionally to your team member. They may feel threatened, withdraw further, and become even more entrenched in their negative behaviors.
So before you go and address the issue to the person, take a deep breath. Relax and calm yourself. Choose your words wisely. Make sure to speak to them privately. A calm demeanor will allow you to discuss instead of argue or draw back.
4. Don’t play their game
Here’s what someone from Quora says, “The real challenge here is not to “hurt” them back, but to render their behavior ineffective against you.” So instead of biting back with the same level of pettiness, be the bigger person.
Stay classy and professional. Don’t engage in similar tactics. Directly ask questions about what the person means instead of just letting it slide. Continue to do great at your job. Never overreact.
If you want, you can even pretend to stay oblivious to their behavior. Here’s how someone from Quora puts it:
Another tactic? Act as if you’re completely unaware of their passive-aggressiveness. This doesn’t mean you are oblivious, but rather that their baiting goes unacknowledged. It’s the equivalent of them trying to start a fire with wet matches.
5. Determine the root cause of the problem
Mac Davidson, a former therapist, says:
Passive aggressive people are different than most people think. Sure, they come across as angry, sulky, fuming, and can be even erasable. But, what they want is something that we all want, they just learned a backward way of getting that done. They want to be heard and respected. That shows within their feelings of distress and stoic stubbornness that tends to leak out with poison until they get someone’s attention for relief.
If this is the root cause of someone’s passive aggressiveness, then one way to fix that is to make them feel heard, seen, and respected. If you give that to them, they might just drop their behavior and start to want to earn that respect.
Of course, if you want to get to the heart of the problem, you need to talk to the person. Get to know them. Try to see why they act the way they do. Find out if they have any behavioral disorders, harbor prolonged resentment towards someone, feel undervalued or overlooked, or experience disappointment from not receiving a promotion.
6. Create a safe environment
One reason why employees are indirect is because they don’t feel comfortable raising issues or concerns with you. So instead, they try to show you what they think by being passive-aggressive.
This can be avoided if you make sure to create a safe environment. Let all your employees know that you’re approachable. Encourage them to go to you with their problems (whatever it may be). And if someone does bring up something to you, don’t forget to praise and support them.
7. Provide careful feedback
A global survey showed that 96% of employees want regular feedback. As a manager, you should provide feedback as much as possible. Sure, you might want to avoid that passive-aggressive person at all costs – don’t.
If they do a good job, make sure to let them know about it. If they submit something two days after the deadline, ask them about it.
However, note that I said “careful” feedback. If you want to prevent a passive-aggressive person from feeling attacked and getting defensive, you shouldn’t use accusatory language. Try to avoid using the term “you”. Instead, use “I”, “us”, and “we”.
8. Offer training
It’s good to train your employees on how to communicate effectively. This will help in conflict resolution as they will know how to address the situation with each other and find ways to resolve it. If this is the case, it will get rid of disruptive behavior, such as passive aggression.
One way to train your employees is to implement the GROW Model developed by Graham Alexander, Alan Fine, and Sir John Whitmore in the 1980s. GROW stands for Goal, Reality, Options (or Obstacles), and Will (or Way Forward).
9. Take care of yourself
It can be super draining to deal with a passive-aggressive coworker. This may affect your job, emotions, and even your mental and physical health. This is why, from time to time, you should take care of yourself, too.
If you need to, disengage yourself from that person for a while. Until you’re able to deal with them calmly anyway. You can also talk about it to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist (but never to a coworker since that will only spread gossip).
If you want to free your mind from the stresses of that passive-aggressive person, find time for self-care. Go for a run. Cook your favorite meal. Hang out with people you love. Read a book. This will help you avoid toxicity entering your personal life.
10. Set clear standards and consequences
As the manager, you need to be assertive with passive-aggressive employee behavior. You need to let them know your standards and the consequences of going below those.
Here’s great advice from the MindTools team, “You need to establish clear standards, and regularly reiterate what you want from them so that you can hold them to account. It’s also important to explain that their negative behavior will not be tolerated, and set out the consequences of what will happen if they do step out of line again.”
How to Document Passive-Aggressive Behavior
When you spot passive-aggressive behavior, you should write it down so that you can address the person with specifics. Remember, when you’re trying to identify the specific behavior, be observant and take notes.
Write down any unacceptable behavior that you find. Also, your writing should have exactly what the person did. What’s more, you should include a few sentences explaining why what they did is not right.
Here are some writing up a passive-aggressive employee examples that you can use:
Example 1: deadline avoidance
Despite clear project timelines, the employee consistently submits work just after deadlines, causing delays and impacting team productivity. This passive-aggressive behavior is reflected in the consistent failure to meet agreed-upon deadlines.
Example 2: veiled criticism in team meetings
During team meetings, the employee frequently makes seemingly harmless comments that subtly criticize team decisions or project directions. These indirect critiques undermine team cohesion and contribute to a negative work atmosphere.
Example 3: selective communication
The employee communicates selectively, providing essential information to some team members while deliberately withholding it from others. This passive-aggressive tactic creates an atmosphere of mistrust and hampers effective collaboration.
Example 4: resistance to feedback
When constructive feedback is offered, the employee often responds with apparent agreement but fails to make any discernible changes in behavior. This resistance to feedback hinders professional development and team progress.
You can use these examples for the different situations. To make it even more specific, you can include even the smallest details.
Passive-aggressive people are very common in the workplace. And it can be exhausting and draining having to deal with them all the time.
To counter that, use the 10 strategies to manage passive-aggressive employees and coworkers. You should also use the examples I provided of writing up a passive-aggressive employee or coworker. This way, you can point it out to them directly or keep upper management informed.