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Career Advice

6 Smart Ways to Deal With a Passive-Aggressive Coworker

Posted by Julia Malacoff

Last Updated December 15, 2021
|6 min read

Passive-aggressive behavior isn’t always easy to spot thanks to its “passive” nature, often taking time to reveal itself for what it really is. Still, once uncovered, it can be a serious nuisance, especially in the workplace. How can you know if the behavior you’re dealing with really classifies as passive-aggressive?

“My view is that you know you're dealing with a passive-aggressive person when you're surprised — and not in a good way,” says Amanda Gulino, HR expert and founder of A Better Monday. Since passive-aggressive people tend to be indirect in the way they communicate, working with them sometimes leads to less-than-ideal surprises.

Maybe they’ve said one thing to your face and another to your boss, or they’re giving you the cold shoulder around the office and in meetings for no apparent reason. No matter the specific behavior, it’s important that you figure out your next move. Instead of letting passive-aggressive colleagues get the best of you, employ these solid strategies for dealing with them.

Step 1: Understand Their Motivation

Though passive-aggressive behavior can be incredibly frustrating, it’s a good idea to take a pause before you react to consider why your coworker might be acting this way.

“It's helpful to separate the passive from the aggressive,” notes Scott Crabtree, Chief Happiness Officer at Happy Brain Science. “The aggressive part is motivated by the same things that make anyone aggressive.” Maybe your coworker feels wronged, threatened, or offended.

“The more interesting part is what makes people passive,” Crabtree says. “I believe it is fear. Unfortunately, conflict between people has been dangerous or deadly throughout human history. It's natural — and even useful — to be conflict-averse. In passive-aggressive people, their fear stops them from being direct, but their aggression leads to them acting out or speaking up in passive ways.”

While a direct conversation is certainly more efficient, when put in perspective, it’s easy to understand why your colleague might take this approach. Knowing this can help you cool down any annoyance you’re feeling as a result of their behavior for a more measured, logical response.

Step 2: Don’t Overreact or Lash Out

One of the biggest challenges of dealing with passive-aggressive people is controlling your own emotions, which, if allowed to get out of control, could harm your focus and performance.

“The biggest mistake we can make is letting passive-aggressive behaviors and personalities get to us, shake us and make us show up as less than who we aim to be every day,” Gulino says. “We have to model the behavior we want to see in the workplace, so it's so important to not stoop below our own personal values and behaviors of professionalism and strong communication.”

Gulino’s trick for managing difficult personalities at work? Imagine a snowglobe: “Inside the snowglobe is the situation you’re dealing with, but outside of it is where you find yourself. This allows you to look at the situation objectively and helps you manage your own emotions and proceed more mindfully.”

This exercise encourages you to remove yourself from the conflict and see it for what it really is. “There's something powerful about objectivity in these very charged, uncomfortable situations with very frustrating people,” Gulino adds.

Step 3: Be Honest

By not saying anything to your passive-aggressive colleague, you’re essentially condoning their behavior.

“Find an appropriate and healthy way to surface the conflict using a lens of radical candor — being honest while being kind,” Gulino recommends. “This could look a variety of ways depending on the nature of the issue, severity and the players, however, the most important thing is to not sweep the issue under the rug.”

Whether it’s an informal conversation with them or a meeting with a mediator like someone from HR or a shared supervisor, finding a way to bring up their actions and let them know why you’re speaking with them is an essential step.

Step 4: Use Your Emotional Intelligence to Your Advantage

We hear a lot about the importance of empathy in the workplace, and this situation is a prime example of where it can be a huge advantage.

“Understand that passive-aggressive people are doing the best they can,” Crabtree advises. “It would be great if they could be more direct, but they are addressing issues the best way they know how. By bringing strong emotional intelligence to conversations with them, you can help them feel safe so they can be more direct and you can have a constructive conversation.”

During your conversation with them, remember: “It doesn't matter who's right or who's doing it right,” Crabtree says. “It's better to be effective than right. Helping people process their emotions, get clear on their needs and responding to them appropriately can help [the] organization move forward.”

The best way to accomplish this is by asking the right questions. “It’s ten times more effective when you can try to put yourself in the passive-aggressive individual’s shoes and try to understand where they are coming from,” says Renee Frey, HR and recruiting expert and founder of TalentQ.

That means asking probing questions and using phrases like: “Help me understand…” “I’m listening…” and “Can you fill me in…” The logic behind this? “All they want is to be heard,” Frey says. “If they are not sharing their frustration, verbally communicate to them that they can trust you and share their true thoughts and feelings. This enables them to feel more comfortable and share more openly.”

Step 5: Build a Relationship

Once you’ve solved your initial conflict with your passive-aggressive coworker, you’ll want to build a foundation for avoiding future issues with them. “I would try to focus on building a relationship with them,” Frey says. “Once they trust you, their guard will go down and they will use less passive-aggression.”

Ideally, once they realize you’re not a threat, they’ll feel more comfortable coming straight to you with issues.

Step 6: Look at the Bigger Picture

If you spot this behavior in multiple colleagues, consider that the issue might have more to do with corporate culture than the individual. “Passive-aggressive behavior may indicate low workplace morale if there are many people using this tactic,” Frey explains. “These employees do not feel connected to the company. They may not trust they can share their true feelings. Create an open, honest trusting workplace and everyone will thrive.”

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