How to manage passive-aggressive people

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 use the phrase “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 behaviour.

What is passive aggression?

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.

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.

Identifying passive-aggressive behavior

Passive-aggressive people may mask their real feelings and claim that things are “fine.” Nevertheless, 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 rumours.

Another common passive-aggressive behaviour is to be disruptive. You may delegate a task to a team member that he doesn’t want to do, so he leaves it to the last moment and does it poorly. Or, he might shirk his responsibilities, such as by taking a sick day just before an important presentation, 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 behaviours can have serious consequences. For instance, if someone is consistently sending mixed messages about her intentions, you may find your team regularly misses its deadlines, which reflects badly on you.

Perhaps she withholds 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 her work regularly, or are subject to her sarcastic comments. This can affect productivity, as well as breeding resentment and damaging morale.

Strategies for managing passive aggressiveness

The suggestions below can help you control the negative behaviours of passive-aggressive team members.

Identify the behaviour

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 behaviour 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 he knows exactly what you’re talking about.

Create a safe environment

Next, let the person know that it’s safe for her to raise concerns and issues with you out in the open, rather in covert ways. Make it clear to her that, as a manager, you don’t “shoot messengers,” and would rather her come to you with her problems rather than let them bubble under the surface.

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 he’s arrived over the last week or so, and give him an opportunity to explain why. You may then remind him when the workday starts, and ask him to show up on time in future.

Stay calm

You may make the situation worse if you react emotionally to your team member. She may feel threatened, withdraw further, and become even more entrenched in her negative behaviours.

Speak to her in a measured, even tone and remain composed. She might not even realize she’s being passive aggressive, so you might want to use an empathic approach to defuse any anxiety and anger. However, if she is 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 behaviour 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 he got passed over for promotion – ask him if his behaviour stems from this. Explain that you want to understand how he feels, and work with him to explore other ways that he might handle the situation more constructively.

Set clear standards and consequences

If your team member deflects your feedback, for example by saying your standards are too high or that she didn’t realize what your expectations were, she may be trying to divert attention away from herself.

You need to establish clear standards, and regularly reiterate what you want from her, so that you can hold her to account. It’s also important to explain that her negative behaviour will not be tolerated, and set out the consequences of what will happen if she does 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 she didn’t understand what you expect from her.

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.

 A longer version of this article first appeared at Mind Tools