How to Work with Passive Aggressive People

Working with passive aggressive people can feel like playing a game of chess against Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones – when they will strike is a mystery, and they often disguise their moves.

However, with some foresight and a dash of Michael Scott’s humor from The Office, you can stay one step ahead and outplay even the most cunning people.

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What does it mean to be passive aggressive?

Passive aggressive behavior is when someone who doesn’t feel comfortable disagreeing or speaking their mind retaliates in non-assertive ways to display their feelings of resentment and anger.

Passive aggressive people and their behavior can be tricky to recognize and even more difficult to address.

This is because of the fake smiles, the sabotage, and the declaration of innocence that a passive-aggressive person represents.

They are truly chess masters in making moves and trying to back their target into a corner.

They’ll often make you feel like you’re overreacting or being hypersensitive.

Of course, double-check your facts before accusing someone of anything.

However, if you’re noticing ongoing behavior that you feel is passive aggressive, your gut is probably right.

How to work with people who are passive aggressive

Ways it Shows Up

Passive aggressive behavior can show up in various ways and to different degrees, depending on the offender’s nature and level of hostility.

Because you can never know exactly what someone else is feeling or thinking, it may be hard to tell the intent of their actions without fully analyzing the situation.

To help you, I have listed some typical behaviors to watch for:

  • Agreeing to take on or participate in a project, seemingly wholeheartedly, and afterward procrastinating on a deadline and doing a poor job.
  • Making back-handed compliments or rude statements and passing them off as jokes.
  • Gossiping behind the back of the targeted individual while simultaneously acting friendly and agreeable when in the same room with them.
  • Pouting or sulking or giving the “Silent Treatment.
  • Ignoring the targeted coworker or acting distracted during conversations.
  • Purposely excluding the targeted person on important communication about changes or deadlines and later pretending it was an innocent mistake.
  • Making comments with the goal of making others feel guilty for having something they don’t.
  • Using phrases like “Whatever” or “It’s fine” and shutting down communication immediately when they’re unhappy with a situation.
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How to Deal with working with passive aggressive people

Once you’re confident that you’re dealing with passive aggressive behavior it’s very important to address it as soon as possible.

Addressing the matter directly is vital without making matters worse.

Because the offender feels hostile, unheard, and emotionally charged, taking actions to diffuse this, rather than heighten it, is the key to creating a more productive work environment.

Recognize it for what it is

This passive aggressive person is feeling hostile and angry.

They don’t have the self-confidence to speak up for themselves.

This is THEIR problem – not yours.

It isn’t your job to determine why they behave this way.

Even if you’ve actually upset them, they could’ve discussed the matter with you if they wanted to.

Don’t take their behavior personally; realize you’re not responsible for anyone’s actions.

Do what you need to do to get your work done in the most effective manner possible.

This doesn’t mean you’re cold and uncaring.

It simply means you must accept the situation for what it is.

Ignore any non-work-related communication as much as possible

If comments are made on a personal level, try to ignore them.

If they say something like, “it must be nice to have all that extra time, money, and freedom,” respond politely and walk away.

You don’t owe this person an explanation for who you are and why you do what you do.

Think of a schoolyard bully; they stop teasing you when they realize it isn’t bothering you anymore.

Reminding yourself that this hostility results from their own inability to speak their mind can help you keep things in perspective.

This goes for non-work related gossip as well

Like in The Office, workplace gossip can quickly spiral out of control, spreading rumors, and damaging reputations.

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However, these simple strategies can help you end the drama and foster a more positive work environment.

With non-work-related gossip, the best thing to do is ignore it.

Accept the fact that people gossip and move on.

If you get word that the passive-aggressive individual is spreading false work-related information that can harm you or the team, address it in a group setting.

Do so by mentioning that you think there may be some misunderstandings about an issue you want to clear up.

Do not directly call them out.

This will dispel any misinformation that the team may have heard and will also make it clear to them that someone is sharing the gossip with you.

At best, they’ll stop gossiping – at worst, they’ll be more careful who they say it to.

Address work-related behavior directly

When a rude comment is made call them on it in a friendly but firm tone.

If it’s work-related, ask them directly if they’re upset about how things are handled.

Pose the question of change and await their proposal.

It’s best to do it in the company of others.

When they claim it was a joke, let them know that you’re getting the feeling that something may be bothering them and that you’re open to suggestions if they have any.

You could also ease their fear of confrontation by inviting them to contact you with any ideas through email or a meeting scheduled for later.

Be sure to invite other relevant team members to the meeting.

Don’t encourage or indulge their unwanted behavior

Now, your workplace is not actually a TV show, and what might be funny or intriguing to watch on the screen is not necessarily how you want to work every day!

If you notice pouting or sulking, ignore it.

Like a child, they’re simply trying to get your attention.

Acknowledging it will only reinforce their behavior.

If it goes unnoticed, there won’t be any reason for them to continue acting this way.

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Worst-case scenario – they continue pouting, and you continue on with your day unaffected.

Keep written records of all conversations and interactions

This is crucial in covering yourself and your professional reputation when working with passive aggressive people.

    1. Have witnesses to all communication. If you’re emailing, add any other relevant team members or supervisors. Be very clear about the messaging. Set a deadline. When deadlines aren’t being met, state so in the email and ask for a projected date for completion. Last, you need to save the email trail to have proof of the problem.
    2. Repeat any verbal communication with a follow-up email to the entire team. Review everything you both agreed to and ensure you’re on the same page.
    3. If it becomes clear that they have excluded you from important communication, which seems to be an ongoing problem, set up regular emails. Try to copy the entire team and supervisors.

Make it convenient for them to listen to you

If they’re ignoring you when you’re trying to speak with them, ask if there is a more convenient time to meet.

If this problem persists during the group meeting, you need to assertively call them out in a group meeting.

This will let them know you are onto them and will probably improve their attitude.

What advice can you offer when working with passive aggressive people?

While dealing with passive aggressive people at work can be a frustrating hindrance to getting your job done, there’s no need to be held captive on the emotional roller coaster caused by someone else’s inability to communicate effectively.

Addressing it in a direct and assertive manner as soon as you recognize it and staying focused on what you can control is key to diminishing the effects it will have on you and your work.

These surefire strategies will help you combat and diffuse the behavior while maintaining your composure and protecting yourself and your professional reputation.

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