The professional atmosphere of a typical workplace setting inhibits the direct and honest expression of emotions such as anger and frustration. Yet, even in the most business-like environments, employees experience these strong emotions over daily events. Couple professional pressure to mask emotions with the tone-obfuscating medium of email, and you have yourself a recipe for passive-aggressive behavior—the perfect office crime.
In a recent survey, Adobe discovered the nine most-hated passive-aggressive email phrases used in the workplace. Below, I offer three steps that workers can take to avoid becoming entangled in no-win, passive-aggressive conflicts at work, along with suggestions for effective responses that de-escalate the bubbling hostility of a passive-aggressive office situation.
Step 1: Know what you are dealing with.
The first skill to effectively managing passive-aggressive email communication is to see beyond the sugarcoated phrasing and recognize the hostility that lies beneath. When you see the kind of patterned wording cited in the Adobe study (e.g., “As previously stated” or “Please advise”), a red flag should be raised in your mind, and you should ask yourself if the sender of the message may be harboring some hidden anger toward you.
Step 2: Refuse to engage.
Once you learn to readily recognize the red flags of passive-aggressive communication, the next essential step is to resist the urge to mirror the sender’s hostility. The goal of the passive-aggressive person is to get someone else to visibly act out the anger that they have been concealing. Any time their covertly hostile email is responded to with overt hostility, the passive-aggressive person succeeds. Rather than mirroring passive-aggressive behavior and increasing the overall hostility quotient in the workplace, savvy professionals know to defuse the hostility instead with emotionally neutral, bland responses. For example:
Passive-aggressive phrase: “Not sure if you saw my last email...”
Don’t mirror the hostility by replying: “Not sure if you realize how busy I am…”
But rather drain off some of the hostility by starting with, “Thanks for the reminder.”
Passive-aggressive phrase: “Re-attaching for your convenience...”
Don’t up the ante by replying: “I got the attachment the first time you sent it and don’t need you to clog up my inbox with your repeated reminders.”
But rather model respectful communication by saying, “I appreciate that you re-sent the document.”
Passive-aggressive phrase: “As previously stated...”
Don’t jeopardize your own professionalism by replying with the first sarcastic thought that pops into your mind, such as, “Oh, did you state that previously? I must have missed it, because you talk so much that I usually just tune you out.”
Rather, keep it classy and don’t take the bait. A simple, “Thanks for the recap” will go a long way in keeping a friendly workplace and rising above someone else’s covert anger.
Passive-aggressive phrase: “Any updates on this?”
Don’t engage in passive-aggressive behavior of your own by intentionally ignoring or delaying your response to their request for updates.
But rather, offer a polite, factual response such as, “I don’t have any updates yet,” or even better, “I don’t have any updates at this time, but I will email you as soon as I do.”
Passive-aggressive phrase: “Sorry for the double email.”
Don’t respond with angry or aggressive language that will make you look like the office hothead (and help the passive-aggressive person look like your victim), such as, “That’s actually the third time this week you’ve bothered me with this, and if you email again, I’m going to break your typing fingers.”
But rather, acknowledge the person’s persistence by replying, “I have received both of your emails and will respond as soon as I have an answer for you.”
Passive-aggressive phrase: “Please advise.”
Don’t give in to the urge to inundate the person with more advice and work than they ever bargained for, such as, “I’m going to need you to cancel your weekend plans and stay here at the office to thoroughly investigate the situation and submit a 100-page report by Monday morning.”
But rather, take the high road, and offer the advice they are seeking. For example, “Yes, please proceed with your idea,” or, “We have decided to move in a different direction. Please hold off on making any changes.”
Step 3: Acknowledge the anger.
If you feel like a co-worker is chronically hostile and using passive-aggressive communication across most situations with you, it might be worth taking the next step, which is to respectfully but very simply acknowledge their anger. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you may be feeling angry,” or, “From your email, I’m wondering if you are frustrated about something.”
Nine times out of 10, the passive-aggressive person will reflexively deny that they are feeling angry — and that’s OK. Your respectful acknowledgement marks a change in the dynamic; the passive-aggressive person now knows that you are a straight shooter who will not shy away from trying to resolve a conflict. With consistent use of steps 1 through 3, the passive-aggressive person will have no choice but to begin to relate to you in a more honest way.
Long, J., Long, N. & Whitson, S. (2016). The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage and Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online. Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.