In this post, I’m tackling a topic that my YouTube viewers have asked me to cover: passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace, both from an employee and manager’s point of view.

So, today, I’m discussing why people are passive-aggressive and how to identify it. I’ll also provide some strategies for effectively dealing with it.

To watch the extended version of this article (with more tips on how to deal with this type of behaviour), click here.

Understanding Passive-Aggressive Behaviour

The workplace is a dynamic environment, bringing together people with diverse personalities, cultures and communication styles.

While conflicts are common, dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour can be particularly challenging.

Passive-aggressive individuals may not express their frustrations or issues openly, but they convey their feelings indirectly, often leading to confusion and tension in the workplace.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is characterised by indirect expressions of anger, hostility, or frustration.

Instead of openly addressing their concerns or issues, passive-aggressive individuals resort to subtle, often underhanded tactics to convey their displeasure.

Some common examples of passive-aggressive behaviour include:

  • Sarcasm: Making ironic or snide remarks to belittle or mock someone, often under the guise of humour. When you pull them up, they may say something like, ‘I was only joking! You just don’t get my sense of humour.’ This is actually ‘gaslighting’, which I’ve discussed in previous articles.            

  • Procrastination: Deliberately delaying tasks or projects, potentially affecting team timelines and causing frustration.         

  • Silent Treatment: Ignoring someone or refusing to communicate with them as a way of expressing anger or frustration.     

  • Backhanded Compliments: Offering compliments that contain hidden criticisms or insults.

  • Denial and Avoidance: Pretending not to understand or know about a problem and avoiding any direct discussion.      

  • Sabotage: Deliberately undermining a colleague’s work or intentionally causing problems without taking responsibility.

  • Taking credit for other peoples’ work: Nothing further is needed on that one!

  • Non-verbal communication: Eye rolling, tutting or sighing instead of saying what they really mean.

Why Do People Use Passive-Aggressive Behaviour?

There are several reasons why people use passive-aggressive behaviour, including, but not limited to:

  • Emotional Immaturity: the person may not know how to express their negativity in a positive way. It may not have been modelled for them as a child, so they never learned how to do it.

  • Conflict Avoidant: This goes hand in hand with emotional immaturity. The person may be extremely unhappy but not know how to express it constructively.

  • Insecurity/low self-worth: Often, bullies use this type of behaviour. They are typically insecure and have low self-worth. They build themselves up by putting others down, and using passive-aggression is their chosen way of doing that.

  • Feeling triggered/ under threat: Passive-aggressiveness is part of the ‘fight’ aspect of the fight, flight, freeze stress response. Everyone responds differently to real or perceived threats. Some people do it through passive aggression.

4. Provide Clear Feedback:

Express your concerns in a non-confrontational manner. Use clear, assertive language to describe the specific behaviour and its impact on your work or the team.

In order to do this, you need examples of the behaviours you will not tolerate. It’s always helpful if you have dates and times, in other words, evidence to back up your examples.

Without it, a skilled manipulator will likely tie you up in knots. That’s why preparation for this type of conversation is critical.

5. Set Expectations:

Clearly communicate your expectations for professional behaviour and teamwork, whether you’re the manager or subordinate. Be explicit about the changes you would like to see in their actions.

6. Maintain Boundaries:

Set clear boundaries for what is acceptable for you in the workplace. If you’re a manager, ensure the whole team understands the consequences of continued passive-aggressive behaviour.

I was a Senior Human Resources professional for almost 20 years before I set up my coaching practice, and one thing I would repeatedly tell managers is to be explicit about expectations and consequences of not meeting them and NEVER avoid taking action when boundaries are crossed.

7. Involve HR if Needed:

If the passive-aggressive behaviour continues or escalates, involve your HR department. Share your documentation and discuss the situation with HR professionals who can guide you through a more formal process if necessary.

8. Self-Care:

Dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour can be emotionally draining. Prioritise self-care and seek support outside of the workplace to manage stress and emotional impact.

Getting the basics right, sleeping, eating a balanced diet, exercising and drinking water are critical for good mental health, not just physical wellbeing.

The Wrap-Up:

Dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace requires a measured and strategic approach.

Recognising the signs, addressing the behaviour directly, and encouraging open communication are critical steps in managing the situation.

By promoting a positive work environment and setting clear expectations for professional conduct, managers and subordinates can create a workplace where passive-aggressive behaviour is not tolerated, and everyone can express their concerns directly and constructively.

What Next?

I go into greater depth on this topic on my YouTube video, which you can watch here. If you head over there, please remember to like, comment and subscribe! It helps YouTube know that the content is interesting so that it will push it out to more people.

I estimate that 50% of my caseload as a professional executive coach is supporting clients in managing workplace conflict—both from a manager’s and employee’s perspective.

If you’re struggling to manage someone in your team or have issues with your boss or another team member, I can help. Either DM or email me at jo@jobanks.net to arrange a complimentary discovery call.

Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please remember to share it with anyone whom you think would find it useful.

As always, thanks for your continued support.

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