It can be as simple as a snide comment, or purposely skipping over you in a meeting, or going above your head with an idea.
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Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace is not only frustrating, it can also be bad for engagement and productivity.
“Similar to any form of aggressive behavior, direct or indirect, it is contagious and can sink performance,” said Lindred Greer, associate professor for management and organizations at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
It can also take a toll on employee morale.
“It’s a violent breeder of resentment,” said Melody Wilding, an executive coach and licensed social worker. “The problem usually is that people don’t have the mechanism to deal with conflict. So the conflict goes unaddressed and things stall or implode because problems aren’t being solved.”
What does it look like?
Passive-aggressive behavior can take many forms in the office.
“It’s just latent or hidden anger issues that people have,” said Angela Civitella, founder and CEO of coaching firm Intinde. “It’s usually expressions that are masked. They can’t come out about what they are angry about.”
Examples of passive-aggressive behaviors in the office could include someone who tends to avoid responsibilities for tasks, isn’t good with deadlines and has a hard time committing to things, withholds information, disrespect lines of authority and can even try and sabotage and set you up for failure.
Get them out of the office
Often, passive-aggressive behavior is rooted in insecurity or unhappiness, so getting someone out of the office for a real conversation can help the person open up and talk more frankly about any issues.
“To create a safe conversation, you need a change of scenery,” said Greer. “Go out for a walk or coffee and be genuinely curious and engage in active listening and ask how they feel about work and what’s going on in life to find the source of tension.”
The idea is to find out the “why” behind the behavior, she explained. “What was your reasoning for going directly to the boss? And then probing the ‘why’ of the ‘why’ of the ‘why’ for that to unearth the real issue going on and get it talked about.”
Being overly negative about other people’s ideas or resisting change is a common form of passive aggressiveness, but a simple way to combat it is to ask open-ended questions like: “What suggestions do you have?” said Wilding. This makes the conversation more productive and shifts away from the negative behavior.
“That question helps inspire more open-mindedness and optimism, moving the person from seeing everything as a problem to seeing solutions instead,” she said.
Passive-aggressive people often think they are being so slick that no one detects their behavior. Calling them out can make them back down.
“If you are aware, the game is over,” said Civitella. “They lose potency.”
Let’s say the person skipped over you in a meeting, Civitella suggested asking yourself three questions before taking any action: was it self-protective, unintentional or malicious? If you decide the move was intentional, she advised confronting the person in a neutral yet assertive tone of voice. Say something like: I could be wrong, but did you just go over my head during the meeting? Make sure to maintain eye contact to help show sincerity and stay calm.
“Let them know everyone noticed what they did. Passive-aggressive people hate being exposed so this will decimate their need to be the aggressor toward you,” said Civitella.
Setting boundaries is key to dealing with passive-aggressive behavior, Wilding said.
While you can’t control other people’s behavior, you can control your reaction and how much you are willing to tolerate.
For instance, she suggested saying: I’d like to make a request that you contact me before roping in the supervisor. Or: I’m focusing and I’d rather not have a conversation about that right now.
Leaders: Set the tone
Bosses play a key role in setting the tone in the office, which means leaders shouldn’t be afraid to show vulnerability and admit mistakes.
“When leaders and followers are able to show emotion, it decreases the power distance and increases trust and teams perform better,” said Greer.