Dealing With Passive-Aggressive Behavior At Work
Do you ever get the sixth sense that somebody dislikes you at work? We’ve all felt it: a whisper under the breath, the side eye, or oblique request.
Of course, we are all guilty too.
Civilized and, now to some extent, politically correct society is built on some baseline of respect. Of course the reality is messy, especially at work. For example, I witnessed a CEO address his 15+ team the other morning.
“I know you’ve all been working very hard. If you get your work done, you don’t need to come in on weekends or stay late. Just so you know. But if you are driven to do more, I won’t stop you.”
How’s that for a pep talk?
I think every new manager (no matter what age) struggles between the balance of being liked and perhaps what you really want to say. Of course this startup CEO wants everybody on his team to be as dedicated to his baby as he is.
Was his directive confusing? Yes. Was it hostile? No.
And for me, that is the border of what passive-aggressive means. You have to think through what that line is for you while recognizing that behavior is a spectrum. Some cues that signal passive-aggressiveness for me are:
- “I’m not mad.”
- “I thought you knew.”
- “Why do you want everything perfect?”
- “I didn’t know you meant, like, now.”
At the end of the day, you’ll know when an interaction is entirely unproductive based on your own frustration. Could it be that the person was really trying to be polite? Or was that just the passive side of what is an aggressive act?
The challenge is that it’s both. And the perpetrator knows it. Now let’s unpack what you can do about it:
It’s Not You, It’s Them
Your best bet is to say something in the moment, rather than ruminate about it later. Folks who favor this conduct are legitimized with silence. Try these conversation starters:
- I’m getting the sense that…
- Would you mind clarifying…?
- I noticed…
Stick to the facts. Most times, this type wants permission to share what’s really going on. For whatever reason, they feel they can’t constructively say what they mean. That’s not your fault. But, unfortunately, your working relationship is collateral damage.
One of my mentees became a target of jealous co-workers who were set on undermining her contributions at work. In this case, they were actively inciting a reaction from her. We talked through how she could protect her work, play it cool, and start reaching out for other opportunities.
[Read more: Four Steps To Better Professional Boundaries]
She eventually found greener and safer pastures.
Passive-aggressive behavior is aggressive. So maintaining a healthy distance is key. First and foremost, to protect yourself and your sanity. Second, there’s a tendency to unconsciously pick up the behaviors of those around us. Remember “like increases like” from last week.
Another option is to request a transfer to another department or even city.
But sometimes none of the above is feasible…if you’re in a close working group or if they’re your boss. In these cases, be as specific as possible:
- Confirm deadlines in person and over email
- Ask for examples of similar work
- Suggest drafting a rough template for approval
Always make it about the work. Note they may fire back with personal attacks. If you can muster the courage, say this slowly and without emotion:
“I feel upset. I’m not sure you’re being fair. I’d like to share why when I’m not so upset.”
Then get out. Follow up later with an email to nail down a time to discuss when cooler heads prevail. They will. And you can. Talk it through and practice with us.
At some point, we must accept that passive-aggressive behavior is a technique that some people feel they have to use. For better or for worse. Perhaps they were raised in a culture that embodied it as an ideal form of communication.
Understanding this does not absolve their actions, but hopefully opens up space for some compassion.
I’ve heard that if you are physically attacked, you should scream your name – supposedly it forces the assailant to see you as a human. Full disclosure, I have no idea if this works. But I do think there’s something valid about reminding someone who you are.
The more you can anticipate a passive-aggressive nature, the more you can remind them you’re on the same team. Consider incorporating these scripts into your meetings:
- What can I do to help?
- If X doesn’t happen, how would you handle it?
- What information could change the outcome?
Above all, stay focused on the issue. Not them or their behavior as tempting as it may be. Remember they are acting out of fear despite how “strong” they appear.
[Read more: When And How To Stand Up For Yourself]
Don’t let their fear make you fear.