Let’s face it. We’ve all met a passive-aggressive coworker before.
You know, the one who’s polite and eager to take on new tasks. Only to later excuse themselves for not doing them the right way.
To make things worse, they throw in sarcastic remarks when you least expect it, complain about the most trivial things, and point fingers at others’ performance despite their poor track record.
If only you could not deal with them anymore, life at work would be a breeze. Yet, you can’t.
What you can do instead is control and model your reactions in such a way as to prevent this behavior from happening further.
How to identify a passive-aggressive coworker
Passive-aggressive behavior is difficult to spot, mainly because of the mismatch between the coworker’s words and actions.
According to M.D. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, an experienced contributor for the Mayo Clinic:
“Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them.”
But why do they resort to this kind of behavior in the first place?
Mainly because it’s much easier to avoid disagreements than directly confronting someone (say a manager), especially if there are stakes like a promotion or salary raise. They might want to maintain the power balance when fate and skills are not in their favor.
This doesn’t mean we can’t go through a passive-aggressive episode every now and then, like failing to attend a meeting or deliver a task on time. In fact, most of us do. When these become an integral part of our workplace culture, sabotaging others and causing burnout, a red flag should be raised.
To spot it, know that a genuine passive-aggressive coworker expresses their dissatisfaction by repeatedly:
- Using sarcasm
- Procrastinating and not doing their fair share of work
- Spreading rumors
- Coming up with excuses
- “Forgetting” or “misplacing” something
- Playing the victim
- Shaming others in public
- Misusing their sick days
- Arriving late at work
- Acting stubborn
- Being dismissive about suggestions
And since passive-aggressive behavior comes in so many forms, you can’t confront them straightforwardly without being mistaken for the actual wrong-doer or slammed with an already made-up answer.
Sarcasm crocodile. Illustration by Vlad Yastreb
How to deal with a passive-aggressive coworker
To put an end to this vicious circle, we need to look at the situation from two perspectives:
The first one concerns the regular employees, who interact with the self-declared “victim” on a daily basis. Because of this, they’re prone to more stress than a manager and seem less credible when demasking them.
The second concerns the actual managers who must confront the bullying coworker and take appropriate action. You might think their job is easier, but it’s the opposite. As highlighted in the Columbia University business magazine excerpt, managers will either self incriminate themselves for not being clear enough in their instructions or feel helpless in front of the apparent “good intentions.”
Nevertheless, the struggle to overcome this behavior is real in both cases, so here are five steps on how to deal with a passive-aggressive coworker:
1. Understand their motivation
Before you judge a coworker, give them the benefit of the doubt and ask yourself why they are doing it in the first place. Chances are the passive-aggressive colleague might be motivated by something:
- Internal – Like an upbringing that involved shutting down their emotions.
- External – New processes, new team members, an insufficient workforce, or a passed promotion—in other words, change that threatens their job safety.
Regardless of the cause, try not to pity them. To paraphrase Amy Jen Su, co-author of Own the Room:
“You just have to see it for what it is, an unproductive expression of emotions they can’t share constructively.”
2. Do not overreact
“But I only wanted to help.”
Phrases like this drive you crazy, yet this is not the time to have a scene in front of a passive-aggressive coworker. Lashing out will only reinforce their behavior and create more conflict.
For now, keep your emotions in check and refrain from accusations. Next:
Depersonalize the situation – Avoid using the words “you” and “yours” in a one-on-one conversation — they sound too accusatory. Instead, replace them with “we” (We seem to have a problem…) and “when” (When we kicked off the project meeting…), which are factually based.
Use the “Columbo” approach – This one is taken from an old TV series that featured a detective who was unmasking criminals through statements like “Maybe I’m wrong” or “I don’t know, but…” while scratching his forehead. The beauty of it is that it gives the passive-aggressive coworker a gap to either take back their words or own them. Can you guess which one they’ll choose in 99% of the cases?
Control your body language – Paying attention to your words and delivery means nothing if you don’t match them with your body language. In general, your tone should be sincere without a faint of tremor, so bullies can’t pick on it and counter with sarcasm. Firm eye contact helps, but your facial expression is the most important part. Discrete micro-expressions like smirks betray anger, so keep an assertive expression throughout the whole conversation.
In some extreme cases, having control over yourself is not enough. You need evidence.
3. Protect yourself and ask for help when everything fails
Collaborating with a passive-aggressive coworker can be like a roller-coaster: one day you’re on good terms, and the next you’re dealt with the silent treatment. The antidote is to take measures.
Document all your conversations, write memos after each meeting and be open to discussing sensitive matters in the presence of a witness or larger group, where they’re less likely to throw tantrums. Facts weigh in heavier than half-baked arguments.
Consider also rallying a support group, as long as the focus is on correcting this behavior rather than gossiping about someone behind their backs.
If none of these work, it’s time to ask for help from a manager or the HR department. No need to beat yourself for doing this. After all, it’s your full right to be happy at work.
4. Set clear expectations
A passive-aggressive coworker is less likely to underperform and come up with excuses if you provide them with clear expectations.
For example, Paymo allows you to add tasks with a deadline, followed by a task description to enlist the next steps to complete it. If too complex, break them down into several rearrangeable subtasks, each with its own formatting options and attachable links.
Subtasks in Paymo
It’s best to assign additional team members to the same task in the project management process, to keep the passive-aggressive coworker accountable towards other parties as well. Make sure you use the best online and easy work task management tools when leading a team. Their subscription usually includes robust features like time-tracking, reporting, team scheduling, and invoicing.
Users love nothing more than free invoicing software helping them manage their work and bill their clients. Just because these are free of charge doesn’t mean invoicing software or online invoice tools aren’t professional; on the contrary. These are just examples of the financial and collaborative tools usually incorporated into work management software so that managers stay on top of their projects.
5. Present the consequences
It sucks to be the bearer of bad news. But you must bite the bullet when the entire team’s productivity and morale are at stake.
Agree with the persistent passive-aggressive coworker about the consequences of their behavior. Perhaps you could move them to support if they don’t turn in a major task by the date they’ve promised so fervently. Or refuse to brief them about the meeting agenda once it starts.
The point here is not to penalize them but to curb their behavior while protecting the team at the same time. Therefore, frame all your further conversations regarding team goals rather than individual inefficiencies.
“Let’s talk about how we’re going to deliver this project successfully” sounds way much better than a phrase starting with “It’s your fault because…”.
Can you rehabilitate a passive-aggressive coworker?
Dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker is one thing, but trying to rehabilitate one is a whole different story.
For those of you with enough willpower, start by understanding their true motives. Don’t label them, as they might be unaware of this term and their behavior. Not to mention how threatened they’ll feel.
Again, turn the conversation around the team and business goals. Make them understand how their sloppiness makes your company unprofessional in your client’s eyes, minimizing the chances of ever doing business with you.
During this rehabilitation time, give your passive-aggressive coworker full support. This can come in the form of the resources they have been asking for so long or an open-door policy (or Slack channel) for consultations.
Don’t be afraid to praise them a bit, even if you have to bring back achievements from one year ago.
However, if you don’t see any improvements in the following two months, consider firing them—regardless if they’re your top developer or sales rep, you name it. Otherwise, they’ll continue to spread negativity and eventually slow the team down.
Gary Vee nailed it when he said:
“Cancer spreads — and with cancer and politics comes lack of speed.”
Curbing the passive-aggressive behavior
Whether you’re an employee or manager who feels dragged down or helpless in front of a passive-aggressive coworker, remember that you have a choice—a choice to protect yourself and your team’s integrity and work happy.
What if you’ve just started out in project management, and you’re dealing with your first team? Read this hands-on guide with examples of how to be a project manager. You’ll learn either from experience or from seasoned project managers how to deal with feisty colleagues or team members.
But before applying these steps to spot a passive-aggressive colleague, assess yourself. Do you get angry at colleagues only to stop talking to them? Or worse, avoid them when passing by?
Chances are, the pattern is there to a certain degree. So start with yourself.
First published on July 1, 2019.