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The unexpected ways that you’re being passive-aggressive at work

You might want to check your email communications.

The unexpected ways that you’re being passive-aggressive at work
[Source Images: Djordje Petrovic/Pexels, Dids/Pexels]

It’s a behavior that no one likes: having passive-aggressive comments (or actions) thrown your way. 

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For this reason, you probably try to stay away from using passive-aggressive phrases at work. What you don’t realize, however, is that there may be phrases you’re regularly using that cause people to believe you’re passive-aggressive (even if you’re not). 

You see, passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a mismatch. You’re feeling anger but not expressing it directly. Or you’re experiencing hostility, but what you’re saying or doing isn’t aligned with your inner emotions. Sarcasm is an example of passive-aggressiveness, or saying something is “fine” when it’s not. Being late or giving someone the silent treatment can also be examples of passive-aggressiveness. 

You may act passive-aggressively if you’re trying to avoid conflict, if you’re fearful, or if you don’t have the confidence to deal directly with issues. If you lack power in a relationship or don’t feel it’s socially acceptable to express your discontent, you might resort to passive-aggressive behavior. 

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You may believe you’re masking your frustration, but people sense it and know you’re not expressing it directly. This causes others to wonder about your motives, question your integrity, and lose trust in you—which makes passive-aggressive approaches detrimental to your career.

How you might be passive-aggressive at work 

One instance where you might be passive-aggressive (without realizing it) is through email communication. This is because it’s limited to the words on the screen, and receivers of an email can’t see non-verbal cues like facial expressions, tones of voice, or the context for the points you make. A new study from WordFinder by YourDictionary identified the expressions used in emails that were perceived to be the most passive-aggressive, some of which might surprise you.  

These study listed the following as the ten most passive-aggressive phrases:

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  • Phrases referencing a previous exchange: per our last conversation, as per my last email, as discussed
  • Phrases reminding someone to do something: friendly reminder, circling back
  • Phrases asking for follow-up: please advise, thanks in advance
  • Phrases confirming your own action: noted, will do, as promised

Of course, you may still need to reference a past conversation or ask someone to take action, but your choice of words will make all the difference in how your expressions are perceived. The key is to be direct and to use fewer shortcuts in communication, like providing more details or a brief context. 

Communicating without passive-aggressive phrases 

Whether you’re communicating in email, via your slack channel, or in person, you’ll want to be assertive by asking questions, sharing information, and balancing others’ needs and your own. This balance is a hallmark of an assertive approach—which is far better than a passive-aggressive one. 

In expressing yourself effectively, you’ll want to be confident, be easy to read, and be considerate. If you’re feeling afraid, anxious, or unsure, you may (unintentionally) take a passive-aggressive approach. The alternative is to remind yourself of your skills and capabilities and deal with a situation directly. Let a colleague know you have an urgent need for their response, or share your frustration with how your coworker ignored your idea in a meeting. People appreciate working with others who have a strong point of view, and they’ll appreciate understanding how you’re feeling and what you need from them.

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People also prefer to work with others who are easy to read and who are predictable and transparent. Openness tends to build trust, because people don’t have to wonder if you have a hidden agenda or guess at how you’re feeling. If the project isn’t going in the way you think it should, discuss the concern with your coworker. Or, if you’re planning a client presentation and believe the strategy should change, share your opinions. 

Lastly, people want to work with others who have their best interests in mind and who share a priority for a project, so being considerate is extremely important. 

Making the investment

Overcoming a passive-aggressive style takes effort and may require building new skills. You’ll need to tune into your own needs and reactions to manage yourself effectively, and you’ll want to develop your effectiveness in empathizing with others and asking questions so you understand where someone else is coming from. As you practice expressing yourself clearly and non-defensively, with respect for others, you’ll build your confidence—and you’ll likely find your relationships and career trajectory improving as well. 

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Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life and fulfillment. She is a vice-president at Steelcase and the author of two books, Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide For Leaders and Organizations and The Secrets to Happiness at Work: How to Choose and Create Fulfillment in Your Work 

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