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Responding to Passive Aggressive Behavior at Work

3 steps to avoid becoming entangled in no-win conflicts.

The professional atmosphere of a typical workplace setting can inhibit 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.

Fortunately, there are specific steps we can take to avoid becoming entangled in a no-win passive aggressive conflict at work.

Step 1: Know what you are dealing with. The first skill to effectively manage passive aggressive email communication is to see beyond the sugarcoated phrasing and recognize the hostility that lies beneath. When you see characteristic or patterned wording such as “As previously requested” or “Reattached for your convenience,” recognize that 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…”
  • 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”
  • Rather, model respectful communication by saying, “I appreciate that you re-sent the document.”

Passive aggressive phrase: “As previously requested”

  • Don’t jeopardize your own professionalism by replying with the first sarcastic thought that pops into your mind, such as, “Oh, did you request that previously? I must have missed it because you send so many idiotic emails 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.

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 still 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 these steps, the passive aggressive person may have no choice but to begin to relate to you on in a more honest way.

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Long, J., Long, N. & Whitson, S. (2017). The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage & Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online. Hagerstown, MD.: The LSCI Institute.

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