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How To Deal With A Passive-Aggressive Coworker

Resist the urge to be passive aggressive right back. Try one of these five methods instead.

How To Deal With A Passive-Aggressive Coworker
[Photo: Lambert/Getty Images]

We all know that person who uses sarcasm, snide remarks, and stalling tactics to vent their anger. It can seem childish and sometimes frustrating, but it can also be damaging to your career if the passive-aggressive person is a coworker whose actions are directed toward you.

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Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon. That’s because passive-aggressive behavior is more comfortable to deliver than confrontational behavior, says Charmon Parker Williams, assistant professor of business psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “Saying what you really mean when you know there will be a disagreement is difficult for many, especially if there is some perceived benefit in sustaining a smooth relationship with a coworker or supervisor,” she says. “Passive-aggressive behavior can be viewed as a way to create more leverage when the level of power is unbalanced in a work situation.”

While venting may release anger in the moment, this type of communication in the workplace is counter-productive. Sarcasm can damage relationships and stalling can interrupt workflow. Instead of being passive aggressive in return, address the behavior by starting conversations or changing your mind-set. Here are five ways to handle a passive-aggressive coworker:

1. Seek To Understand What’s Really Behind It

Organizational change often sparks passive-aggressive behaviors, says Parker Williams. “Employee resistance to changes, like the introduction of new systems or processes, new leadership, a reduction in force, or a new work location often results in passive-aggressive behaviors, especially when employee input was not considered or the change resulted in some degree of loss for the individual,” she says.

“While we often we see resistance as bad, you can also see it as something to honor and understand,” says Beth Linderbaum, managing consultant at Right Management, career and talent development consultants within ManpowerGroup. Introduce the change slowly, and ask the person to share their concerns and listen. “[Honoring] these concerns can build the foundation of trust,” she says.

2. Model Healthy Conflict Management

While passive-aggressive behavior is an unhealthy way of handling conflict, you don’t have to follow suit. Instead, take a deep breath and think about how you can model healthy conflict management, says Linderbaum. “It may mean taking some time and space until cooler heads can prevail,” she says. “It is okay to say, ‘I hear you. Let me have some time to think about this before we discuss further.’ This can mean seeking to understand and looking for solutions where everyone can win.”

Or come to the conversation offering options, adds Parker Williams. “Don’t put them on the defensive,” she says. “Show empathy for their situation and focus on their needs.”

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For example, if a coworker is procrastinating in getting you something you need, go to them and say, “I can see that you are busy, I would imagine that you don’t need an interruption,” suggests Parker Williams. “I value your input and really need to talk to you for about 10 minutes about a project that is due by noon. Can we talk now or at 9:30 this morning?”

3. See It For What It Is

When you come across a passive-aggressive coworker, evaluate their behavior through that lens, says Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster. “It’s not a way to chalk it off, but rather about saying to yourself, ‘Okay, this person is passive aggressive, so I need to react and communicate differently than if this person wasn’t passive-aggressive,'” she says.

If your colleague makes a backhanded compliment, for example, try taking it in stride, says Salemi. “Here’s the thing: you need to work alongside this person and produce excellent work even though they may be getting on your nerves,” she says. “Try to get to know them as a person despite their comments, which may come across as snide, demeaning, and arrogant.”

4. Set Healthy Boundaries

Being on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior is frustrating, and it’s important to think about how you’re being impacted by this person in the long term, says Linderbaum.

“If your efforts to understand and model healthy conflict behaviors don’t work you must look at how you are setting healthy boundaries for yourself and getting the support you need,” she says. “This may mean respectfully standing firm or finding a way to exit the relationship all together.”

You can also seek out a trusted person, such as your manager or HR director, in whom you can confide or ask for advice or perspective.

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5. Call Them Out

Finally, you may want to call them out on their game, says Salemi. “They might not even be aware of how you’re perceiving their comments,” she says. “Some people are more blunt in delivery than others.”

While you don’t want to stir the pot to the point of animosity, you also don’t have to bear the brunt of their constant barrage of ammo; that’s the makings of a toxic environment, says Salemi. “Push back in a professional manner, and let them know,” she says. “Keep your cool and don’t take it personally. If this person is passive-aggressive toward you, chances are he or she is operating the same way to others.”

You can also turn the tables and ask for clarification, adds Parker Williams. “Don’t get defensive,” she says. “Then confront the individual in private.”