A passive-aggressive colleague behavior can get the best of you, employ these solid strategies for dealing with them.
When Collins Abia, a worker in TMLT (a reputable company in Nigeria) told me this and shared he was also thinking of giving up his lifelong mission to pursue the humanitarian work he so loved, I knew it was time to step in as his coach and work with Collins to get the situation under control.
What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
Passive-aggressive behavior encompasses more than just eye rolls and faux compliments. Maybe it’s that friend who’s chronically late but won’t say she doesn’t enjoy hanging out with you.
Or a co-worker who’s killing productivity with mindless distractions but won’t say he hates his job.
We all have moments when we respond sarcastically or say yes but really mean no (it’s complicated, Justin). Both are hallmarks of passive-aggressive behavior.
And that’s OK, says Ken Braslow, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of Luminello. It becomes an issue when the behaviour is chronic, a crutch to bypass emotionally authentic conversation.
Passive-aggressiveness most often stems from a family that avoids overt conflict, but it’s also reinforced by a society that tells us anger isn’t a healthy emotion, Brandt says.
“We’re often taught to be compliant and not say things that will create problems,” she says. “Because then there might be a blow-up, and no one has given us the recipe for how to deal with anger.”
While there’s no cure-all for dealing with passive-aggressiveness, and context is important (you’ll probably respond differently when dealing with your boss than with your S.O.), these five strategies are a good place to start.
Ways to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Colleague
Shutting down passive-aggressive patterns in the workplace can be tricky. It takes time and patience. But learning to short circuit this unproductive cycle can make you more confident and effective.
1. See Beyond the Surface
When a colleague cops a passive-aggressive attitude, determine how this behaviour has benefited them in the past. Look for the hidden positive outcome motivating the person to act passive-aggressively.
What do they achieve by not expressing themselves directly? They may get to feel superior by putting others down. Or perhaps they gossip to be part of the “in crowd” at the office.
Deep down, your colleague’s behaviour is most likely driven by fear—fear of rejection, fear of missing out, fear of not being good enough.
Recognizing their motivation helps you put their behaviour in perspective, make space for a modicum of empathy, and choose how you want to respond.
2. Remove the Reward
While your colleague’s criticisms or lack of follow-through may irk you, refuse to mirror their emotional tone. Don’t nag or rescue them. Avoid firing back with comments like “Why would you do that?” or “What do you really mean?”
Consider ways you may be enabling the passive aggressive dynamic to stay in place as well: backhanded compliments, procrastinating on deliverables, saying “it’s fine” when it’s not.
Tit for tat gets you nowhere. In fact, it backfires. Reacting to provocations only escalates conflict and gives the passive-aggressive person the reward they want, keeping the destructive behavior in place.
3. Keep Your Cool
Work on staying calm and controlling your emotions so you can be composed. Trying to not be upset doesn’t make the problem go away. It often makes it worse.
It’s perfectly reasonable to be frustrated by passive-aggressive behavior but process your emotions outside of your interaction with the person.
4, Build Better Boundaries
You may be treated with respect in the workplace (which is an expectation to never compromise on). You also have a responsibility to protect your mental and emotional well-being of passive aggressive energy vampires.
That might mean working from home to limit contact, popping on headphones while you work, or taking a brisk walk around the block to clear your mind.
4. Take Ego Out Of Communication
If your job requires collaboration with passive aggressive colleagues, you may need to change your communication ever so slightly to make things work.
When in direct conversation, avoid using words like “you” or “your” when directed at the passive-aggressive person.
Replace it with statements that begin with “we” to depersonalize issues (we have some challenges…) or “when” (when there’s a miscommunication on the team…).
Mastering a few simple principles of assertiveness can help defuse resistance and bolster cooperation.
5. Set Limits and Follow Through
When you change the way you communicate, there may be a backlash from colleagues. Micro-aggressions may intensify when you disrupt the normal, elusive way of doing things.
Stay consistent in your assertive communication and work to establish clear standards and expectations that hold people accountable.
Consequences—when designed effectively—are the most powerful way to snub out passive-aggressive behavior. For example, if you want to curb tardiness, begin meetings on time regardless of who runs late.
If you say you’ll start without them, enforce it.
6. Adopt an Open-Door Policy
Passive-aggressive people struggle to express themselves openly at work, but you can influence positive change by welcoming feedback and dialogue.
Start by offering different ways colleagues can get in touch. Mention that your inbox is always open to them or that you’re available on Slack or Skype throughout the day if something comes up.
Encouraging two-way communication helps head off passive aggressive patterns before they start. By doing so, you help create a psychologically safe workplace where healthy, constructive problem-solving can thrive.
Remember: it’s not about you, it’s about them. It’s their stuff. No matter what passive-aggressive put-down has you shaken, dust your shoulders off and hold your head high.
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