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7 Ways to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Colleague

Tips for coping while still getting work done.

Key points

  • Passive aggression involves harboring negative feelings but indirectly expressing them. Signs include sarcasm, gossip and the silent treatment.
  • Strategies for shutting down passive aggression at work include recognizing a person's motivations for the behavior and removing rewards.
  • Other tips include staying calm, setting boundaries, modifying and encouraging communication, and staying consistent in one's expectations.
Photo by Los Muertos Crew from Pexels
Learn effective boundary-setting techniques.
Source: Photo by Los Muertos Crew from Pexels

Dealing with a passive-aggressive co-worker isn’t easy, especially when you’re a sensitive person. Because of your nature, you may find yourself taking a difficult colleague’s comments personally – making them mean you’re incapable. Or you may find that your colleague’s slights and undermining behavior trigger your emotional reactivity.

An Example of Passive-Aggressive Treatment at Work

Colleen came to me after just being promoted to director of her hospital unit. As a sensitive striver, her empathy, emotional intelligence, and conscientiousness made her successful, but Colleen also put a lot of pressure on herself to make other people happy.

When she discovered a passive-aggressive co-worker at the hospital, it hit her hard. This colleague frequently withheld information, neglected their share of the workload, and left Colleen out of important meetings. The colleague’s snide remarks made Colleen’s blood boil and she struggled to keep her frustration under wraps – often bursting into tears after their interactions.

When Colleen shared this with me, I knew it was time to re-empower her and take back control from this passive-aggressive co-worker.

Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace

According to the Mayo Clinic, passive-aggressiveness involves harboring negative feelings but indirectly expressing them. In other words, a passive-aggressive co-worker may feel angry, jealous, or upset, but they mask their emotions through indirect hostility. A passive-aggressive colleague may act this way because of upbringing, low confidence, or poor conflict-resolution skills, to name a few.

Passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace can be subtle and hard to spot. It includes:

  • Sarcasm
  • The silent treatment
  • Procrastinating or leaving tasks unfinished
  • A cynical attitude or air of superiority
  • Disguised insults and non-compliments
  • Stubbornness
  • Gossip
  • Making excuses
  • Blaming others
  • Never giving a straight answer
  • Rejecting other viewpoints and feedback
  • Saying they feel under-appreciated

Passive-aggressive behavior – whether malicious or unintentional – contributes to a toxic workplace environment. Left unchecked it can erode employee morale and contribute to burnout, even if you otherwise enjoy the work you do.

How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Co-worker

Shutting down passive-aggressive patterns in the workplace can be tricky. It takes time and patience. But learning to short circuit this unproductive cycle can make you more confident and effective.

1. See beyond the surface.

When a colleague cops a passive-aggressive attitude, determine how this behavior has benefited them in the past. Look for the hidden positive outcome motivating the person to act passive-aggressively. What do they achieve by not expressing themselves directly? They may get to feel superior by putting others down. Or perhaps they gossip to be part of the “in crowd” at the office.

Deep down, your colleague’s behavior is most likely driven by fear – fear of rejection, fear of missing out, fear of not being good enough. Recognizing their motivation helps you put their behavior in perspective, make space for a modicum of empathy, and pause to choose how you want to respond.

2. Remove the reward.

While you may be irked by your colleague’s criticisms or lack of follow-through, refuse to mirror their emotional tone. Don’t nag or rescue them. Avoid firing back with comments like “Why would you do that?” or “What do you really mean?” Consider ways you may be enabling the passive-aggressive dynamic to stay in place as well: backhanded compliments, procrastinating on deliverables, saying “it’s fine” when it’s not. Tit for tat gets you nowhere. In fact, it backfires. Reacting to provocations only escalates conflict and gives the passive-aggressive person the reward they want, keeping the bad behavior in place.

3. Keep your cool.

Work on staying calm and controlling your emotions so you can be composed. Trying to not be upset doesn’t make the problem go away. If anything, it often makes it worse. It’s perfectly reasonable to be frustrated by passive-aggressive behavior, but process your emotions outside of your interaction with the person.

4. Build better boundaries.

You have the right to be treated with respect in the workplace (which is an expectation to never compromise on). You also have a responsibility to protect your mental and emotional well-being from passive-aggressive energy vampires. That might mean working from home to limit contact, popping on headphones while you work, or taking a brisk walk around the block to clear your mind.

5. Take ego out of communication.

If your job requires collaboration with passive-aggressive colleagues, you may need to modify your communication ever so slightly in order to make things work. When in direct conversation, avoid using words like “you” or “your” when directed at the passive-aggressive person. Replace it with statements that begin with “we” to depersonalize issues (We have some challenges…) or “when” (When there’s a miscommunication on the team…). Mastering a few simple principles of assertiveness can help defuse resistance and bolster cooperation.

6. Set limits and follow through.

When you start changing the way you communicate, there may be backlash from colleagues. Micro-aggressions may intensify when you disrupt the normal, elusive way of doing things. Stay consistent in your assertive communication and work to establish clear standards and expectations that hold people accountable. Consequences – when designed effectively – are the most powerful way to snub out passive-aggressive behavior. For example, if you want to curb tardiness, begin meetings on time regardless of who runs late. If you say you’ll start without them, enforce it.

7. Adopt an open-door policy.

Passive-aggressive people struggle to express themselves openly at work, but you can influence positive change by welcoming feedback and dialogue. Start by offering different ways colleagues can get in touch. Mention that your inbox is always open to them or that you’re available on Slack or Zoom throughout the day if something comes up.

Encouraging two-way communication helps head off passive-aggressive patterns before they start. By doing so, you help create a psychologically safe workplace where healthy, constructive problem-solving can thrive.

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