How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive People At Work

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Learning how to deal with passive-aggressive people is critical for career success. So, what better way to start than with a passive aggressive definition.

Key Points:

  • Among the four types of assertiveness, passive-aggressive behaviour can be the most subtle in the workplace.
  • In any work environment, the negativity of a passive-aggressive person can be contagious, leading to gossip and resentment between colleagues.
  • It’s important to showcase emotional intelligence, nip the problem in the bud to keep morale high and your employees happy.

What does passive-aggressive mean?

Passive-aggressive behaviour is an indirect way of showing unhappiness with a situation. Instead of dealing with their frustrations directly, a passive-aggressive person might:

  • Make jokes or snide remarks
  • Gossip about the person who has upset them
  • Ignore the person who has upset them
  • Sabotage group projects or refuse to pull their weight

Rather than having a productive conversation to air their grievances with their colleagues, passive-aggressive people prefer to implement negative behaviours which signify their frustration.

This can greatly impact the people around them and their work performance.

How can it impact the workplace and business results?

“Having a passive-aggressive person on your team can make working together difficult,” says Andrew Wallbridge, Head of Leadership & Management at TSW Training. “If someone isn’t open about their concerns, it creates an uncomfortable dynamic as the issues at the heart of it cannot be addressed.”

The impact, therefore, on the workplace, can be huge. If a passive-aggressive colleague is unwilling to engage in group discussions or shows other inconsistencies like showing up late or giving the silent treatment, it can bring a hostile environment to the workplace.

As a result, business prospects can suffer due to poor relationships within the team. “If the team can’t work together to get great results,” Wallbridge explains, “it’s ultimately the business that they work for that will see the negativity seep into their output. Issues need to be dealt with head-on so that people can work together more efficiently.”

What’s the impact on colleague and employee wellbeing?

Working with passive-aggressive people can profoundly affect colleagues, who find it incredibly frustrating to try and work alongside them.

A 2022 study in America found that 73% of people experience passive-aggressive behaviour at work, with 47% saying they would quit their job if a co-worker, client, or manager, were being consistently passive-aggressive.

That’s almost half of American employees who would willingly leave a role if they were experiencing passive-aggressive behaviour on a regular basis.

When you think about that in terms of your workplace and how many people you could stand to lose, it shows how this negative behaviour can affect your business.

What can you do to deal with passive-aggressive people and improve workplace morale and productivity?

It’s not always easy to spot passive-aggressive behaviour as it can sometimes be very understated. Once you do, you can follow this six-step process to help you deal with a passive-aggressive colleague.

#1. Flag up the passive-aggressive behaviour

Firstly, you’ll need to identify when and where passive-aggressive behaviour is taking place, and who it’s aimed at. If you can’t answer all of these right now, you can still flag up an individual’s actions with your line manager, or, if the situation is more severe, with your HR team.

Being aware of how your colleague is acting is the first step in improving workplace morale.

#2. Decide how you’re going to approach the situation

If you’re managing a passive-aggressive person, it’ll be down to you to decide how you’re going to approach the situation objectively. Be aware that people with these tendencies are conflict-averse and avoid confrontation, hence the passive nature of their behaviour.

Whether you’re going to chat with them alone, or with somebody else present, choose a neutral setting for your discussion.

If you book a meeting with them, tell them what it’ll be concerning before you go in, to prevent them from becoming anxious in the lead-up.

#3. Sit down with them to discuss their actions

Taking the time to show empathy of what’s going on can be beneficial for all parties involved, even if your passive-aggressive co-worker doesn’t feel it’ll help.

Try not to criticise their behaviour; this is about understanding where they’re coming from.

Give your perspective initially to let them know their behaviour has been noted. For instance, if Dinah was managing Scott, she could say, ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been coming into work late, and taking longer lunch breaks recently. I’d like to understand more about why that might be.’

Scott could have found it difficult to negotiate traffic in the mornings, and lost track of time on his lunch break. It might be that he’s angry he’s been made to come into the office when he was working from home for six months.

#4. Get to the root of the problem

Getting to the heart of the problem isn’t always easy as someone might act passive-aggressively due to their dislike of direct confrontation. However, it’s essential that the real meaning behind their actions is revealed to resolve the situation.

Ask questions and hold a direct conversation to understand exactly what it is that’s upsetting them. Dinah could ask Scott, ‘why exactly do you dislike coming to the office?’ Scott could retaliate with, ‘I can do my job just as well from home.’

From here, Dinah could ask, ‘it’s less about the job and more about building connections with your teammates. How do you feel about that?’

Scott would have to give an honest answer about his reasoning for being late, whether it was because he’d rather not commute, felt he could build strong relationships remotely, or didn’t realise that’s why he was being asked to come into the office.

#5. Hold the individual and others involved accountable for their actions

It’s important that any negative behaviour is addressed, and that people are held accountable for their actions. Although it can be uncomfortable, you should clarify that this behaviour isn’t acceptable. Explain that going forward there will be consequences if they continue to make others in the team feel uncomfortable. Remain calm and discuss the issue with them.

For instance, Scott’s punctuality could be monitored or Dinah could come to a flexible arrangement with him where he can work from home for a portion of the week.

If Scott explained that one of his colleagues had been rude to him, and that was why he’d prefer to work from home, the other colleague should be spoken to separately and held accountable for their actions.

#6. Make a plan going forward

Someone with passive-aggressive tendencies like Scott could take the opportunity to complain to their colleagues about their meeting with Dinah, so making a clear plan to move forward is crucial.

Be sure to check in regularly with your colleague, and ensure they’re happy with the outcome of the meetings you’ve had. Try to resolve any situations they bring up, and encourage them to come to you with any further concerns, instead of stewing on them.

What are the advantages of overcoming this behaviour?

Overcoming passive-aggressive patterns within the team can help boost workplace morale and build resilience against future negative situations that arise. Being able to have open and honest conversations is important for removing concerns that may be holding people back.

“For the mental health of the workforce, any issues must be dealt with directly and promptly,” says Wallbridge. “A passive-aggressive person may not be willing to engage at first, but if you can get to the root of their problems, they may be more open to addressing issues head-on instead of releasing their anger through gossiping or other sabotaging behaviours.”

A great model to consider using when reflecting on how you dealt with these passive-aggressive situations at work is Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle model. We even provided a downloadable template to help you work through the situation and reflect on how you dealt with it.

Picture of Matthew Channell
Matthew Channell
Matthew is TSW Training’s Commercial Director. He writes about performance focussed learning, leadership, and management approaches that have real-world, sustainable impact.
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