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Passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace

February 3, 2017

By Mary Corrado

We all know at least one person who displays passive-aggressive behavior – whether it is at work or at home.  And I have to think that we would all agree it is very difficult to deal with and in abundance, can lead to a toxic work environment.  It can make an otherwise enjoyable job miserable, create burnout, and decrease employee morale.  So how do we deal with passive-aggressive employees?

Passive-aggressive can be defined as “a defense mechanism that allows people who aren’t comfortable being openly aggressive [to] get what they want under the guise of still trying to please others. They want their way, but they also want everyone to still like them.”  Some workplace examples include:

  • An employee who withholds important information from other employees in order to make themselves appear more important and more valuable and with an intent to make other employees fail
  • An employee who smiles and agrees with you in a meeting, but behind the scenes will backstab, undercut, or sabotage
  • An employee who uses humor to make fun of someone else and then states they were just kidding, when in actuality they meant it

You can see how this could be common in the workplace.  Employees are expected to get along and not cause conflict.  Those without the proper social skills to properly deal with conflict often display passive-aggressive behavior.

According to a recent corporate culture study by Booz Allen Hamilton, more than 30% of the managers, employees and executives surveyed believe they work in unhealthy, passive-aggressive organizations.  Passive-aggressive behavior can destroy a company’s culture.

It’s important as a leader to recognize passive-aggressive behavior not only in employees but in management.  When top executives are passive-aggressive, they tend to always tell the CEO that everything is great or they will blame anything wrong on one employee.  As a CEO or top manager, you must be willing to look deeper into situations and look past what the passive-aggressive manager is telling you.  Be sure to let employees know that you have an open door, and they can be honest with you.  

So how do we manage passive-aggressive people?  I recently read an article in Forbes that had some great ideas:

  1. Stay Calm – Be honest about your emotions, but don’t lose your temper.  Often, passive-aggressive behavior exists due to a fear of conflict.  Show that person that you can disagree yet work together to effectively solve the problem.
  2. Set Healthy Limits – Don’t reward passive-aggressive behavior.  Allow time for the passive-aggressive employee to vent, but limit the time allowed to do so.  Complaining half the day that you don’t have time to get your work done is not solving the problem.
  3. Use Direct Communication – In other words, don’t be passive-aggressive! Call out the behavior when you see it.  Confront the person directly and get to the bottom of what the issue might be.
  4. Empower the Employee to Solve the Problem – Learned helplessness is common among passive-aggressive people, but it is important to not solve their problems for them.  The article gave a great example – Rather than printing off an email that an employee insists they never received, encourage him to take responsibility. Say something like, “That email was sent three times, but you’re saying it hasn’t arrived in your inbox. What do you think you should do about that?” This will encourage him to engage in active problem-solving and discourage the passive-aggressive behavior.
  5. Provide Consequences – Do not allow the passive-aggressive employee to shift blame.  If a deadline was missed, it was missed.  If necessary, implement an appropriate consequence.
  6. Be a Role Model for Assertive, Yet Appropriate, Behavior – Be sure the work environment supports honesty and openness.  When you display assertive, honest behavior employees know that it is acceptable to do so themselves.  Employees should never be punished for appropriately voicing a concern or different point of view.  Encourage healthy debate.

It’s important to create and support a culture of honesty and respect.  Discouraging passive-aggressive behavior will contribute to a healthy work environment for all.

Have you had to deal with passive-aggressive employees in your organization?  If so, I’d love to hear how you have dealt with it.  Email me at  

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