Handling Workplace Passive Aggression: Do's and Don'ts

Monday, November 13, 2017 | Posted by: Alpha Kappa Psi

Passive aggressive behavior in the workplace is as frustrating as it can be destructive. Whether it’s something you’ve noticed in coworkers or employees, it’s definitely possible to mitigate passive aggressive situations before they get out of hand. Doing so can be both professional and proactive. If you’ve found yourself in a tense, passive aggressive situation, here are five keys to fostering dialogue that redirects passive aggression into positive, actionable change.

See What’s Underneath

Passive aggressive behavior can come in the form of language, tone, and actions. When you spot something you might perceive as passive aggressive, try not to immediately jump to action. Instead, take a moment to reflect on what might be underneath the situation. If Angelo is snapping at Debra over deadlines, his tone might instead be a reflection of a poor work/life balance or a personal problem nagging at his mind, rather than Debra’s actions.

  • Do: Take a breath and analyze the situation.
  • Don’t: Pull Angelo from the meeting and speak to him immediately.
  • Don’t: Call him out in front of his peers.

Try Not to Mirror

If you find yourself the target of a passive aggressive attitude, remove the reward of engaging with an equally negative presentation. This inscribes passive aggressive behavior as an acceptable form of conversation. Instead, try to calmly address what you witnessed or felt in clear, concrete language. In the case of Angelo and Debra, it might behoove you to say something like the following: “Angelo, I recently saw you speak to Debra in a manner I perceived to be sharp or aggressive.” Allowing your peer to understand you noticed can alert them to something they may not have thought to be an issue.

  • Do: Speak concretely when you describe the situation.
  • Do: Leave you ego and feelings at the curb.
  • Don’t: Allow frustration or anger to color your communication.

Ask Questions

After laying out the situation you’ve seen or personally felt, you can begin to ask questions. Take care to show empathy. One way of doing so is to simply ask, “Is everything alright?” If the attitude is out of character, you might also want to address this. Giving your peer room to speak honestly can be really kickstart the dialogue.

  • Do: Ask open ended questions.
  • Do: Note if something is out of character.
  • Don’t: Make suggestions as to the reason behind the behavior.

Encourage Transparency

In all situations, whether proactive or reactive, attempt to encourage transparency. This can be as simple as leading by example. You may try to announce to your coworkers when you’re feeling poorly or overwhelmed. This also means ensuring that directives and deadlines are as clear as possible. Chances are, if you’re feeling confused or overwhelmed, you peers are as well. However, if you’re in the role of supervisor, you might be a bit more removed from the day-to-day of your employees. In this case, it’s important to regularly “take the temperature” of your team and check-in so as to encourage the transparency you want.

  • Do: Abide by transparency yourself.
  • Do: Actively monitor expectations and deadlines for clarity.
  • Don’t: Expect your team to be transparent if you aren’t also doing so.
  • Don’t: Hold back if you have a question or concern.

Although it’s nice to think that others are creating passive aggressive environments, everyone gets cranky sometimes and it may just be that you’ve been the root of some passive aggression at work. If you’ve noticed this in yourself, take a moment to check in. This list can also apply as an internal gauge. Trying to get at what’s causing your own attitude can help keep you from bottling it up and reacting when you don’t need to.

Have you ever dealt with passive aggressive behavior at work? What are your tips and tricks for navigating? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.


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