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How to Work with Passive Aggressive People

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Passive aggressive behavior is when someone who doesn’t feel comfortable disagreeing or speaking their mind, retaliates in non-assertive ways in order 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 due to the fake smiles, the sabotage, and the declaration of innocence that a passive-aggressive person represents.

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

Of course you may want to 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 a variety of ways and in different degrees, depending on the nature and level of hostility of the offender.

Because you can never know exactly what someone else is feeling or thinking, it may be hard to tell for sure 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 then afterwards 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 it is clear that they’re not happy with a situation.
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How to Deal with it

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

It’s also vital to address the matter directly, without making matters worse.

Because the offender is feeling hostile, unheard, and emotionally charged, taking actions to diffuse this, rather than to 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 figure out why they’re behaving this way. Even if you’ve actually done something to upset them, they could’ve discussed the matter with you, if they had chosen to do so. Don’t take their behavior personally, and realize that 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 nonwork related communication as much as possible.

    If comments are made on a personal level, try to ignore them whenever possible. 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 is the result of their own inability to speak their mind, can help you to keep things in perspective.

  • This goes for non-work related gossip as well.

    When it comes to non-work related gossip – 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 calling 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 the way things are being 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 there may be something 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.

    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 continuing acting this way. 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.

    1. Have witnesses to all communication. If you’re sending an email, make sure to add any other relevant team members or supervisors. Be very clear about what is expected fo said passive aggressive person. Set a deadline. When deadlines aren’t being met, state so in the email, and ask for a projected date of when the work will be completed. Lastly, you need to save the email trail in order 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 make sure you’re both on the same page.
    3. If it becomes clear that you’ve been excluded from important communication, and this seems to be an on-going 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 have a meeting. 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 likely improve their attitude.

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 effectively communicate.

Addressing it in a direct and assertive manner as soon as you recognize it and staying focused on what you can control are 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 both yourself and your professional reputation.

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

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