How to Manage Passive-Aggressive People
Bringing Hidden Hostility to Light
Do you know people who are frequently sarcastic? Do they tease others cruelly or put them down, either directly or behind their back? If so, do they then say "just kidding" to appear to lessen the blow?
Perhaps they respond to conflict by shutting others out and giving them the "silent treatment," rather than addressing issues head on? Or maybe they pretend to accept responsibility for tasks, only to come up with excuses for not doing them later?
You may not immediately recognize these actions as aggressive – angry people typically use harsh words or lash out physically. However, they are examples of passive-aggressive behavior.
In this article, we'll define passive aggression, explain why people might act in this way, describe the effect it can have in the workplace, and suggest strategies for managing it.
What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
According to the medical practice and research group Mayo Clinic™, passive-aggressive people tend to express their negative feelings harmfully, but indirectly. Instead of dealing with issues, they behave in ways that veil their hostility and mask their discontent.
If you're not encouraged to be open and honest about your feelings from an early age, you might use passive-aggressive behavior as an alternative to addressing issues head on. For example, you might sulk, withdraw from people emotionally, or find indirect ways to communicate how you feel.
People may act like this because they fear losing control, are insecure, or lack self-esteem. They might do it to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, or insecurity, or to deal with rejection or conflict. Alternatively, they might do it because they have a grudge against a colleague, or feel underappreciated.
How to Identify Passive-Aggressive People
Passive-aggressive people may mask their real feelings and claim that things are "fine." But you can often spot when their actions subtly contradict their words.
Some passive-aggressive people have a permanently negative attitude, and regularly complain about the workplace or their colleagues. Instead of offering praise when it's due, they typically downplay or ignore others' achievements. They might also use sarcasm as a weapon to attack colleagues (pretending that they are joking), or spread harmful rumors.
Another common passive-aggressive behavior is to be disruptive. You may delegate a task to a team member that they don't want to do, so they leave it to the last moment and do it poorly. Or, they might shirk their responsibilities, by taking a sick day just before an important presentation, for instance, as a form of "retaliation."
Passive-aggressive people often have difficulty taking responsibility for their own actions, and blame others for their mistakes. You'll find that issues at work, for example, are never their fault. Or, if they're late for a meeting or don't complete a project on time, it's because of someone else.
How Passive Aggression Affects the Workplace
Passive-aggressive people's negative behaviors can have serious consequences. For instance, if someone is consistently sending mixed messages about their intentions, you may find your team regularly misses its deadlines, which reflects badly on you.
Perhaps they withhold instructions or other critical information to impede fellow team members' progress, and projects suffer as a result. Or team members may have to pick up a passive-aggressive person's work regularly, or are subject to their sarcastic comments. This can affect productivity, as well as breeding resentment and damaging morale.
Strategies for Managing Passive-Aggressive People
The suggestions below can help you control the negative behaviors of passive-aggressive team members.
Identify the Behavior
The first step in addressing passive aggression is to recognize it, using the pointers above. This is often the most challenging part, as it can be subtle and therefore difficult to identify.
Deal with passive-aggressive behavior straight away, so that it doesn't escalate. Make notes on situations as they occur, so that you have specific examples of what your team member has done, so they know exactly what you're talking about.
Create a Safe Environment
Next, let the person know that it's safe for them to raise concerns and issues with you out in the open, rather than in covert ways. Make it clear to them that, as a manager, you don't "shoot messengers," and would rather they come to you with their problems, rather than let them bubble under the surface.
You need to act in a way that aligns with this. For example, by encouraging, praising and supporting people who do bring matters to your attention.
Use Language Carefully
Give accurate feedback, and be careful with the language you use. For instance, instead of complaining that someone is "always" late, you'll want to point out the exact times they arrived over the last week or so, and give them an opportunity to explain why. You may then remind them when the workday starts, and ask them to show up on time in future.
Although it's important to be direct and to address the issue head on, try to avoid "you" statements. This will stop the other person feeling attacked, and becoming defensive. Instead, use first-person pronouns, such as "I," "we" and "our," and explain the effect that their behavior has had on you and your team. For instance, you might say, "I noticed that the report was two days late," instead of, "You failed to meet the deadline."
It's important to confront passive-aggressive people directly and face-to-face, rather than through an indirect form of communication such as email. You'll get your message across more clearly in person.
You may make the situation worse if you react emotionally to your team member. They may feel threatened, withdraw further, and become even more entrenched in their negative behaviors.
Speak to them in a measured, even tone and remain composed. They might not even realize they are being passive aggressive, so you might want to use an empathic approach to defuse any anxiety and anger. However, if they are repeatedly behaving in this way, and you've raised the issue in the past, you may need to be firmer, and consider disciplinary action.
Identify the Cause
If passive-aggressive people claim that they are "fine" when their behavior suggests otherwise, don't accept their answers at face value. Probe more deeply by asking questions to identify the root of the problem. Give them the opportunity to explain themselves, but don't let them pass the blame.
For instance, if someone seems to be responding negatively to a disappointing work decision – perhaps they got passed over for promotion – ask them if their behavior stems from this. Explain that you want to understand how they feel, and work with them to explore other ways that they might handle the situation more constructively. For example, they might improve a particular skill, so that they have a better chance of promotion next time.
Consider providing some one-to-one coaching using the GROW Model, and coach your team member in how to communicate assertively. In particular, role-play the raising of issues, so that people become comfortable doing this in a confident, non-passive-aggressive way.
Set Clear Standards and Consequences
If your team member deflects your feedback, for example by saying your standards are too high or that they didn't realize what your expectations were, they may be trying to divert attention away from themselves.
You need to establish clear standards, and regularly reiterate what you want from them, so that you can hold them to account. It's also important to explain that their negative behavior will not be tolerated, and set out the consequences of what will happen if they do step out of line again.
Confirm any discussions that you have about deadlines and actions in writing, by sending follow-up emails after meetings, or drafting a performance agreement. That way, your team member will have difficulty claiming that they didn't understand what you expected from them.
Open up Channels of Communication
Passive-aggressive people often lack good communication skills, because they struggle to express their emotions openly. They may prefer to send emails, rather than address issues face-to-face, for example. When this is the case, encourage them to develop the skills and confidence to speak to others directly.
If your team members know that you welcome their insights and opinions, they are more likely to talk about issues. Be a good role model and communicate regularly with them. Practice Management by Wandering Around, so you can develop strong relationships, build trust, and identify problems before they escalate.
Passive-aggressive people mask their hostility with subtly aggressive actions. Telltale signs include procrastination, disruptive behavior, and blaming others.
Although it can be difficult to detect, passive aggressiveness can poison the work environment if it's left unchecked, so you'll need to take a proactive approach.
Once you've identified the behavior, address it directly. Stay calm during your conversation, and ask questions to find out the reasons behind your team member's actions so you can deal with them.
Set clear standards and hold people to account. Make sure you encourage open, two-way communication and provide training so that they are able to air their views and become comfortable addressing issues in a non-passive-aggressive way.
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