How To Eliminate Passive-Aggressive Behavior In Your Office

Sarcasm disguised as humor and apologies cloaked in criticism can erode productivity and morale, and can cost a business money and talent.

How To Eliminate Passive-Aggressive Behavior In Your Office
[Photo: Flickr user Basheer Tome]

Despite intentions, passive-aggressive behavior is usually far from subtle.

In the workplace, though, it shows up in a seemingly innocent statement, such as, “It doesn’t matter to me, I’ll do whatever you want,” when in reality, it actually matters very much to that person. Passive-aggressive behaviors range from the fairly mild to the more caustic (sarcasm disguised as humor), but the net result is the same: It breeds mistrust, anger, resentment, and ultimately, disengagement. That kind of behavior costs the U.S. economy up to $370 billion per year in lost worker productivity.

As professional coach Kate Nasser writes, “Passive aggressive is less direct, not less aggressive.” As with overt hostility, Nasser says it’s important to address it head on.

The Many Shades Of Passive Aggressiveness

In order to attack passive-aggressive behavior successfully, you first have to be able to recognize that it comes in many flavors. Nasser says passive-aggressive team members may say or do the following:

  • Cover a lack of manners with fake manners. Interrupt with a quick “sorry,” yet with no real acknowledgment of the other person’s presence. Or smile and say to the other person, “You don’t mind, do you?”
  • Restate exactly what another team member just said as if it’s her own idea.
  • Use subtle sarcasm against another team member and call it humor.
  • Intellectualize instead of apologize–“I wonder why I did that?” instead of, “I am terribly sorry.”
  • Use neutral statements instead of true empathy. “Yes, it is difficult, isn’t it?” instead of, “How can I help? Let’s look at it and find a solution.”
  • Hold others to a very high standard of behavior and call them on it publicly.
  • Use apparently logical reasons to undermine others’ success–and then ask them if they mind.

Write It Down

The next step is responding appropriately. When the person is, by nature, nonconfrontational and has developed this behavior as a coping mechanism, it can be tough to call them out, says Zeynep Ivet Bandirma, an organizational psychologist and leadership development coach. Bandirma suggests workers listen to their gut and document behavior that doesn’t feel right.

Bandirma also advises that the person on the receiving end of such behavior chronicles his case with a calm, factual approach, remembering that it’s not his job to change the passive-aggressive person. Reacting emotionally will further alienate the colleague.

Check Yourself

Sometimes, that behavior is unintentionally coming from you. Muriel Maignan Wilkins, a cofounder and managing partner of Paravis Partners executive coaching, offers this handy checklist for detecting the disconnect between what you say and what you’re actually doing:

  • You didn’t share your honest view on a topic, even when asked.
  • You got upset with someone but didn’t let them know why.
  • You procrastinated on completing a deliverable primarily because you just didn’t see the value in it.

Maignan Wilkins recommends taking some time to identify the root cause. “It can be a fear of failure (a desire for perfection), a fear of rejection (a desire to be liked), or a fear of conflict (a desire for harmony),” she says. One of Maignan Wilkins’ clients, for instance, saw any sign of questioning or conflict as a message that he wasn’t being valued. He’d immediately go on the defensive and make comments behind his coworkers’ backs. In fact, the opposite was true. This client’s work was so valuable to his company that his colleagues’ questioning was simply a way to make sure his efforts were successful.

As Maignan Wilkins points out: “A large part of letting go of passive-aggressive behavior is accepting that conflict happens. Conflict at work (or anywhere) is not necessarily a bad thing if you make an effort to move through it productively.”

Encourage Healthy Communication And Feedback

In addition to being compassionate, Bandirma points out that managers and team members have to create a safe space for everyone to discuss issues. “Make it a habit to implement activities like after-action reviews after each project, for example, so your team becomes accustomed to looking at projects, activities, and tasks with a critical eye in an effort to make the next round better,” she says. “And ask everyone to participate.”

Nasser suggests an exercise in which the entire team develops a list of high-performance member behaviors. “Clear expectations of behavior are one way to develop a culture of positive interaction and give everyone a mechanism for discussing negative behaviors,” she reasons. Nasser also recommends training for everyone to learn how to disagree without being unpleasant or destructive.

“A team’s diverse opinions are its strength,” she maintains. “The way they communicate is its lifeblood.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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