How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive Coworkers

By Lilly Chesser
Sep. 20, 2022
Articles In Life At Work Guide

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Just as you can’t pick your family, you also don’t usually get to pick your coworkers. If you find yourself having to deal with someone at work who is regularly passive-aggressive, it can be difficult to know how to respond politely while not encouraging the behavior.

To help you in this, we’ve compiled some information about and examples of passive-aggressive behavior and some tips for dealing with even the most passive-aggressive of coworkers in the most productive and emotionally intelligent ways.

Key Takeaways

  • Passive-aggressive people indirectly express their negative feelings rather than openly addressing them.

  • Some examples of passive-aggressive behavior include sarcastic remarks, acting friendly to someone’s face while criticizing them behind their back, and saying something nice while using negative non-verbal cues.

  • The first three steps of dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker are:

    1. Empathize with the origin of their passive-aggressive behavior

    2. Don’t take it personally

    3. Don’t respond passive-aggressively

How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive Coworkers

What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

According to the Mayo Clinic, passive-aggressive behavior is “a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them.” In other words, people engage in passive-aggressive behavior when their actions, which present passively rather than directly, do not match their words and intentions, which are laced with aggression.

What an Encounter with a Passive-Aggressive Person Looks Like

People who engage in passive-aggressive behavior can be incredibly frustrating and confusing, as it is difficult to have open, honest conversations about whatever seems to be bothering them. They simply do not own up to negative feelings of anger, disappointment, envy, annoyance, or whatever else they may be truly dealing with under the surface.

Passive-aggressive people have mastered the art of slyly hiding their anger and other related feelings. However, feelings must be felt and expressed one way or another, and their anger seeps through in their interactions with others. This is why, even though the behavior they are exhibiting may not be overtly confrontational, you walk away with a strange feeling (or extreme anger) after talking to these people.

Why People May Behave Passive-Aggressively

The truth is that these individuals are mixing their feelings of anger with a tendency towards avoidance. Passive-aggressive people may be afraid of genuine conflict, they may be people-pleasers at heart or have past experiences where their direct expression of feelings was poorly received.

Oftentimes, passive-aggressive people may not even know they are being passive-aggressive, as they may have been taught that this is a valid approach for handling conflict.

With passive-aggressive behavior, people get to somewhat express their feelings, while still guarding themselves, fending off a perceived possible attack, and leaving themselves with an escape route (i.e. “I was only joking…”). This reinforcement can make it difficult for passive-aggressive individuals to break out of this cycle of behavior.

Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is not always clear-cut, but, for the most part, you know it when you experience it. We all have our off days and off moments, and we all from time to time exhibit behavior that can be classified as passive-aggressive in certain contexts.

The issue is if this behavior becomes a recurring pattern for an individual, to the point where they are causing work issues or discomfort to others.

With that in mind, it can be helpful to take a look at how passive-aggressive behavior can show up. The following are all examples of what might be considered passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace:

  • Acting kind and friendly to someone’s face, but criticizing or talking negatively about them behind their back.

  • Sarcastic remarks.

  • Gossipping about colleagues’ personal lives.

  • Strategically leaving tasks uncompleted rather than addressing questions or concerns.

  • Saying something “nice” or “neutral” but with a negative tone or negative non-verbal cues, such as rolling their eyes or scowling.

  • Consistently undermining someone’s work or ideas in front of superiors.

  • Making jokes or snide comments to someone about something they are doing incorrectly or not to your standards.

  • Refusing to own up to negative feelings when confronted.

  • Refusing to be direct or give straight answers to questions.

  • Constantly remarking on feeling unappreciated or put-upon.

Tips for Dealing With a Passive-Aggressive Colleague

Dealing with a passive-aggressive colleague can be tough. While you get to escape this person and the bad energy they bring to your personal life, a passive-aggressive coworker can tank your day-to-day enjoyment of your job.

However, there are some strategies you can employ to make these people a bit easier to deal with. Here are eight tips for dealing with passive-aggressive colleagues:

  1. Empathize with the origin of their passive-aggressive behavior. It may seem contrived to some, but being able to put yourself in others’ shoes is a necessity for building emotional intelligence.

    At one point, we were all children, impressionable and easily molded by the world around us. We all grew up in different circumstances, many of these circumstances out of our control.

    Take a second to understand where passive-aggressive peoples’ behavior may come from. They may have learned through example that direct conflict is not safe, or they may have been punished for expressing themselves directly.

    They may think being “agreeable” is their only option. They may even be out of touch with their own feelings, unable to tell when they are truly upset or off course.

    Whatever it is, understand that passive-aggressive behavior is not an attempt to make your life harder. It is an attempt by the passive-aggressive party to make their life more manageable in the ways they have been taught to do that. Meeting them with understanding can work wonders for improving your relationship.

  2. Do not take it personally. As we stated earlier, passive-aggressive behavior is not an attempt to make your life harder, so do not consider it that way. It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with how this specific person navigates the world.

    When you catch yourself genuinely hurt or offended by a colleague’s passive-aggressive behavior, it is in your best interest not to personalize this. Remind yourself that this person has a limited perspective, and try your best to manage and cope with any feelings you have about them in a healthy, productive way.

  3. Do not respond passive-aggressively. While it may be tempting to respond to someone’s passive-aggressiveness by being passive-aggressive right back, don’t. It will only make the situation tenser and affirm that they are behaving appropriately.

    Instead, model professional, assertive behavior by responding kindly but directly. Take a second to think through your response if you need to, even saying something like, “Can we talk about this later?” if you don’t feel like you can be cordial in the moment.

    Just make sure you actually do follow up and continue the conversation once you’ve had time to cool down and collect your thoughts.

  4. Gather concrete examples to call out specific behavior. With a solid background of understanding, you can begin to address this behavior productively. It may seem a bit strange at first, but we recommend keeping a sort of short-term document to note specific, concrete examples of your colleagues’ passive-aggressive behavior.

    Only note the concrete actions, not your interpretations of these behaviors. The point is to recognize for yourself what exact behaviors are bothering you. It is important to have specific examples you can refer to when you get to the point of confronting this colleague to avoid the losing game of an ambiguous, circular argument.

    Whatever you do, do not show this list of grievances to your passive-aggressive coworker, or to any coworker for that matter. This is strictly for clarifying your understanding of things and keeping your thoughts organized.

  5. Check yourself. Once you have a few examples down, it’s time to do some analyzing and some hard thinking. This step of the process will save you the headache of figuring it all out on the fly during a tense conversation. One important factor to reflect on is the role you might have played in this passive-aggressive encounter.

    No one is ever completely blameless in instances of social conflict, nor is anyone ever completely to blame. No one has the right to harass or bully you, but if you have a tense relationship with a coworker, ask yourself if there might be instances where you were displaying some level of passive aggression.

    You have control over your behavior in a way that you will never, despite your best efforts, have control over another’s behavior. So, if there is any part you are playing in this negative situation, address how you can amend your behavior first.

  6. Let them know you welcome talking directly about issues. As we have discussed earlier, people act in passive-aggressive ways because they are scared of what could come if they address their needs and concerns directly. They may be trying to avoid being yelled at, being rejected, being punished, or any other negative outcome.

    Alleviate this fear by modeling healthy communication. Address your issues with your coworker in roughly the format of “when you [concrete example of passive-aggressive behavior] it makes me feel [how you are feeling]. Could you please [behavior you would like them to do instead]?”

    You may even ask them to use a similar format to more directly address issues with you in the future.

  7. Validate their feelings and explanations. When confronted, passive-aggressive people may have excuses or explanations for their behavior, and they may feel as though you are attacking them and they are forced on the defensive. Regardless of your intentions, this can be a scary feeling for them.

    Let them know you are on their side, and you are trying to create a healthy relationship in working towards common goals. You can do this by validating their feelings and their circumstances with phrases like “I understand…”, “I get it…”, and “I am sorry that happened to you…”

    You may want to roll your eyes or say something sarcastic, but understand that this only worsens the problem, and turns you into the passive-aggressive coworker. However, validating your coworker’s feelings does not equal letting them off the hook. You still need to hold them to an appropriate standard of behavior.

  8. Reward direct communication. Any time your coworker directly productively addresses an issue with you, or otherwise modifies their passive-aggressive behavior, respond with gratitude. Positive reinforcement goes a long way.

    If, for example, a coworker who typically leaves his assigned tasks incomplete finally does complete his tasks on time for once, go out of your way to let them know they did a great job on the assignment. They will appreciate the acknowledgment.

  9. Limit contact. If all else fails, your best bet is going to be simply limiting the amount of time you spend talking to, interacting with, and relying on this coworker to the extent that you are able. Remain cordial with them of course, but do not feel obligated to stay in draining conversations out of politeness.

    If you have tried resolving the issue using the above steps, and you are still running into the same issues, it may be time to speak with someone about it.

    If this behavior is truly affecting your work life, discuss it with your supervisor or human resources department. You are not tattling if you have made honest efforts to resolve this issue on your own and still find yourself challenged.

Final Thoughts

We have all been there — you see that one particular coworker round the corner and you run the other way. Or maybe you do not see that coworker showing up where they should, and you find yourself constantly stifling eye rolls. Or, worse of all, you may be dealing with the serial note-leaver who seems to never be around when it comes time to discuss the issue.

Whatever specific brand your coworker sports, whether they are the Debbie Downer, the chronically tardy, or the backhanded-compliment-giver, you are dealing with the same basic issue: a passive-aggressive coworker.

The confusion left in the wake of passive-aggressive behavior can drive you to insanity, or the bar at 5:00 pm sharp. But you do not have to just suck it up and deal with it. There are helpful strategies you can employ when dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker that can make your life a little easier, and even lay the groundwork for a good relationship with this person.

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Lilly Chesser

Lilia Chesser is a professional copywriter and content writer based in Columbus, Ohio. She graduated from Denison University with a BA in communications.

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Topics: Life At Work