How to Handle A Passive Aggressive

How it feels to work with passive aggressionA friend of mine contacted me the other day about an issue she was experiencing in the workplace. The ‘problem’ – one of handling passive aggressive behaviour in the office – caught my attention. I was reminded of the many times I had personally experienced passive-aggression when I worked as a senior manager in a large organisation. This behaviour was typically from male managers, but occasionally I also experienced this from female leaders too.

So let me tell you more about passive aggressive behaviour and some strategies for how to handle it.

Firstly, let me explain what Passive Aggression is

I’m sure you are familiar with classic assertiveness. This is where we are confident and share our opinions, thoughts and feelings with respect for the other person. There are two other types of behaviour:

Passive Behaviour. 

Passive people struggle to voice their wants, needs and desires. Fundamentally this is because passive people do not want to experience conflict. They have a deep fear of being shouted at, put down or made to feel stupid. What’s more important is that the other person feels okay and therefore the other person’s needs, wants and desires are more important than their own. This makes them avoid confrontation at all costs.

Aggressive Behaviour.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have aggressive behaviour. This is the behaviour when an individual believes their rights, wants and needs are more important than anyone else. They often feel others are too stupid, too inferior to them or too weak emotionally or intellectually. They are driven by a need to be right and a need to be better than others. They push, demand and intimidate others. Others need to ‘fight’ for the right to be listened to.

Passive Aggressive Behaviour is not quite in the middle (because that’s where assertiveness is). Passive Aggression sits to the left of the middle. That’s because the style of a passive aggressive is to make the other person feel bad but deliver the message in a very subtle way (or so they think).

As the label ‘passive aggression’ suggests, this is where someone expresses their anger indirectly. They believe that they cannot share their anger or frustration and do it in more subtle ways. Most passive aggressive people suffer from:

  • Poor self image
  • An inability to express their feelings
  • An intense dislike of conflict

Where does Passive Aggression come from?

According to psychologists, passive aggressive was once recognised as a mental disorder. The phrase first came about after World War II. Soldiers who wanted to avoid combat without being openly disobedient.

But it became so common that it was no longer in the ‘Bible of Mental Health’. As with a lot of unhelpful behaviour, passive aggression comes from our childhood. Specifically individuals who experienced:

  • Living with a dominant / controlling parent
  • A parent who punished them for showing aggression
  • The family not valuing a child’s needs or wants

Essentially, there people who display passive aggression typically have a deep routed fear of what might happen if they actually express their feelings or state what they want. This creates an odd blend of behaviour that is very subtle. That feeling you get when you hear a remark that you think was undermining you, but it wasn’t quite so overt as that. Or it can be more overt, such as a clear put down.

Passive Aggressive Behaviour in the Workplace


I’ve seen passive aggressive behaviour played out a multitude of times. Here are some obvious signs:

  • Finding fault and not taking responsibility themselves
  • Blame and passing the monkey to others.
  • Demeaning others with one liners and flippant comments
  • Non-communicative – Sulk or Scowl

With passive aggression, there are also more subtle signs. For example:

  • Appearing to be in agreement but behind the scenes doing everything in their power to sabotage
  • Is positive in front of you and then undermines you once you have left the room
  • Tells you that you can trust them and then their behaviour and words clearly show that they don’t
  • Uses sarcasm with the intent of ‘I was only messing around’ if they are challenged
  • Postponing or procrastinating on a decision – anything that frustrates colleagues / bosses. He / she then claim that the boss has unrealistic expectations.

So, What Can You Do With Passive-Aggressive?

This is by no means a magic formula. Passive-aggressive behaviour, as mentioned above can be a deep routed condition that may never shift. But here are a few thoughts to help you if you are faced with passive-aggressive behaviours in the workplace.

  • You can’t change the behaviour of a Passive Aggressive. Period.
  • You can change the way you feel about working with them.
  • Start to pay more attention to what they do than what they say
  • Hold them accountable for their results not their promises
  • Inhale before you react
  • Work on your own self talk: ‘They’ can’t make you feel a certain way, act or react in a certain way.
  • Ask them directly for their concerns in front of others (so you have witnesses to their reaction)
  • Keep your expectations clear and put them in writing
  • Ensure you have a paper trail
  • Don’t let the other distort the truth. Stand up for what you believe to be true and stick to your guns.

The key message is that you need to find ways of ensuring passive aggressive behaviour doesn’t trigger an unhelpful reaction in yourself. This is about managing your own emotions and reactions that keep you with your head held high and reputation in tack. Good luck!

Please let me know if you have dealt with passive aggression in the workplace and any success strategies you adopted by adding your COMMENTS below.

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