Establishing strong relationships in the workplace often involves enjoying collaboration with team members, but it can also entail navigating challenging situations with your coworkers. Sometimes, colleagues resort to passive-aggressive behavior when they feel upset or unappreciated and aren’t sure how to resolve their conflicts. If you want to know how to work well with as much of your team as possible, you might benefit from reviewing some methods for handling passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace.
In this article, we define passive-aggressive coworkers and provide a list of eight tips to help you overcome the interpersonal challenges they present.
Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them.
Signs of passive-aggressive behavior include being sarcastic, talking behind your back, displaying negative body language
and giving silent treatment.
Strategies for dealing with passive-aggressive coworkers include addressing the situation directly, assessing your actions and holding them accountable.
What are passive-aggressive coworkers?
Passive-aggressive coworkers are members of your organization who express their discontent in indirect and subtly hostile ways. Rather than have an open discussion where they raise issues that bother them, passive-aggressive coworkers integrate their signals of displeasure into their workplace behaviors.
For instance, an employee upset about a change to their schedule might arrive consistently late instead of expressing their concerns to their manager. A typically productive and agreeable employee might suddenly exhibit passive-aggressive behavior after a significant conflict, or someone might struggle with handling problems productively and instead depend on passive-aggressive habits.
Passive-aggressive coworkers present several challenges that can diminish productivity, including:
Interrupting teamwork: Passive-aggressive coworkers are often difficult to work with comfortably. Their colleagues may hesitate to approach them about important work-related matters or may avoid partnering with them on projects.
Leaving issues unresolved: Passive-aggressive coworkers might be upset for a valid reason. However, because they don’t communicate directly, managers and coworkers might not learn about important issues, and they, therefore, remain unresolved.
Performing below expectations: Passive-aggressive coworkers often can’t perform to the best of their abilities if they’re preoccupied with an ongoing issue or if they can’t adapt their behavior to collaborate successfully.
Undermining group efforts: Passive-aggressive coworkers, in the worst instances, may actively undermine the overall efforts of their team. They might convince themselves that they can right a wrong they experienced by interfering with a project or by not completing their duties.
8 tips for working with passive-aggressive coworkers
Here are several tips that can help you navigate professional relationships with passive-aggressive coworkers:
1. Address the situation directly
When you recognize a coworker is engaging in passive-aggressive behavior, you might feel inclined to avoid interacting with them and their unpleasant mannerisms. However, if you don’t address the situation directly, your passive-aggressive coworker can continue to exhibit the same problematic attitude without improvement, and your organization still has to deal with the consequences of their actions. To open a productive conversation, plan how you can approach your coworkers so that they don’t feel targeted and would speak openly with you. You might set aside time in a conference room to meet with them, for instance.
Even if the passive-aggressive behavior has been difficult to handle, begin by emphasizing your constructive intentions. You can share why you find your coworker’s actions troubling and express your sympathy in case the coworker is experiencing a personal difficulty they haven’t discussed with you. Instead of describing their passive-aggressive behavior in general terms, rely on specific instances of it you observed so that your conversation can revolve around concrete interactions.
2. Identify their incentives
While coworkers might become passive-aggressive because they don’t know how to handle their emotions, they also might rely on passive-aggressive behaviors because they have an incentive to do so. For instance, an opening for a position with better pay might become available in your department. Several coworkers might suddenly feel competitive with one another and engage in passive-aggressive behaviors in pursuit of promotion.
In these cases, identifying the reasoning behind your coworkers’ actions can help you decide the best path forward. You might decide to focus on fulfilling your responsibilities as well as possible until the situation passes and a productive conversation can take place, or you might approach your team and acknowledge that the stresses of the moment are negatively affecting the work environment. Either way, you can better interpret why your coworkers are acting the way they are and see how you fit into the situation, enabling you to improve it.
3. Analyze the content behind the delivery
You benefit from considering if coworkers’ passive-aggressive behavior results from them being upset about a valid issue. If so, you might take a more empathetic approach toward their actions and try to understand why they’re struggling to resolve their dilemma properly. However, it can be challenging to connect an event to an individual’s behavior, especially if that event didn’t involve you. Therefore, try to avoid concluding before you’ve learned more about the situation.
If you want to discuss the situation with a manager, you can frame your perspective as one of concern for your coworker’s well-being and the team’s overall performance. If you choose to approach your coworkers directly, ask them if they’ve encountered any challenges you can help them overcome. You may receive direct or indirect clues as to why your coworker has become passive-aggressive and be able to help them identify potential solutions.
4. Assess your actions
Passive-aggressive coworkers sometimes direct their negativity toward the majority or all of their team members. In other cases, they direct their displeasure toward one or a few specific individuals. If you sense a coworker is using passive-aggressive cues to communicate that they’re unhappy with you, assess your own actions to determine plausible reasons. Your coworker’s behavior isn’t justified because of your actions, but you may recognize that you did do something inconsiderate. If so, along with addressing your coworker’s passive-aggressiveness, you also benefit from addressing and apologizing for your mistakes.
By holding yourself accountable, even for minor incidents, you display the leadership and emotional maturity that your coworkers should strive for rather than resorting to passive-aggressive behavior. You also can help any offended coworker overcome their less productive habits and realize that open communication is a much more effective and pleasant approach for handling disputes.
5. Don’t take it personally
When you are on the receiving end of hostility, you may feel offended and become defensive. However, taking others’ behavior personally rarely results in positive outcomes. Even if you had a dispute with a colleague, if they decide to avoid addressing the situation, getting upset yourself doesn’t help you restart communications with them.
Recognize that passive-aggressive habits typically are not intentional patterns of behavior and usually reflect someone’s intensive discomfort. By acknowledging your coworker may struggle to handle conflict maturely, you can put their actions in proper perspective and orient your own toward finding a solution.
6. Review your forums for conversation
If you’re in a managerial or leadership position, you have significant influence over how people raise issues and handle them productively. When a workplace doesn’t have an established forum for discussing conflicts, team members may not know how to share their thoughts and instead keep them private, resulting in more passive-aggressiveness throughout a team. Review how your organization allows employees to have private discussions about their concerns and confirm that your team is aware of them.
You might schedule more frequent one-on-one meetings, redistribute information about human resources or update your employee handbook to formalize a process for sharing concerns. Whichever actions you take, you must follow through on your plan for better communication so employees know you want to hear their feedback.
7. Avoid reciprocating their behavior
Passive-aggressive behaviors range from minor transgressions, such as not responding promptly to emails, to blatant patterns of negligence, such as not turning in work. When a coworker is subtly uncooperative, you may feel inclined to reciprocate their behavior. For instance, if several coworkers disapprove of a new manager and begin arriving late, you might see little reason to be the only one starting work on time. However, taking part in passive-aggressive dynamics prolongs the unpleasantness they create.
If instead of reciprocating negative behaviors, you focus on upholding positive habits, you can lead your team toward a more cooperative future. Coworkers who seek attention with their passive-aggressiveness recognize they aren’t achieving their goals with you and those who genuinely need help might trust you as a source of stability and emotional maturity.
8. Enforce expectations
Because passive-aggressive behaviors sometimes seem trivial until they become a sustained problem, managing them presents a unique challenge. For instance, one coworker might submit work late because they genuinely struggle with deadlines while another might do so to signal their dissatisfaction. To avoid having to sort out the reasons behind every workplace dilemma, enforce expectations equally among your team. If successful, you might limit many of the instances where employees feel management was inconsistent and reduce the frequency of passive-aggressive behaviors.
When you hold all team members to the same expectations, you can then engage them as individuals to better understand why they’re acting a certain way. Ideally, passive-aggressive employees can change their behavior, but you also have to ensure your business operates responsibly. This requires maintaining the standards that allow you to identify employees who want to improve and those who are resistant to cooperating.
I hope you find this article helpful.