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Passive aggression is destructive but hard to prove

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Passive aggression can be difficult to prove because it is often partially disguised, subtle or nuanced. Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership, explores how to handle passive-aggressive people at work.

30th Sep 2022
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Passive-aggressive behaviour is insidious, toxic and destructive and can affect both the victim, the team and the culture of the organisation as a whole, yet can be difficult to prove because it is often partially disguised, subtle or nuanced. Some call it the perfect office crime.

What is passive aggression?

To be passive-aggressive is to indirectly express negative behaviour, rather than openly addressing issues; to show a form of hostility whilst avoiding direct confrontation, and to exert control indirectly.  It is a covert act that, whilst it can be a result of anger, low self-esteem, sadness or anxiety which unconsciously leaks out, it can equally often be a conscious way to exert some form of control and is a form of bullying

Identifying passive aggression can be tricky because of the subtleties and nuances, but it can also be obvious in some cases.

Think backhanded compliments, unsolicited advice, being patronised or given the silent treatment, intentionally being late or avoiding completion of tasks, subtle digs, talking behind another’s back, sarcasm, denial, mocking facial expressions or remarks.

Think negative body language, microaggressions, whispering and then changing the subject, ghosting, showing contempt by rolling of eyes etc, or knowingly commenting on something that makes someone feel uncomfortable. 

The effects on business

The instigator of the behaviour may perform below their best and fail to collaborate and may sabotage a project, deliberately or otherwise which can affect the entire group. 

Colleagues may hesitate to work with them, and the team may feel undermined. Handling passive aggression can be challenging, exhausting, confusing, frustrating, and lead to emotional distrust.

It can erode morale and contribute to mental health issues at work affecting self-worth and leading to loss of talent.  There may be actual issues that need addressing but these get lost with the toxic behaviour.

For example, the passive aggressor may have been the recipient of similar behaviour or may be feeling marginalised and is trying to exert control over the situation.

How to handle passive-aggressive people at work

Pinpoint what they are doing. Perhaps ask them “Can you repeat what you just said” or “You are saying it’s fine, but you look angry”? You might not be able to make them admit what they are doing but it does show you won’t accept it and that you have boundaries and are prepared to call their behaviour out. 

Don’t be aggressive back but do gently ask them if there is a problem. Perhaps try to build a bridge in the relationship, it is possible they may well feel threatened by you for some reason. Matching their behaviour will only escalate matters. Don’t let ego get in the way.

Assess if it is unintentional. Look at the bigger picture and use your emotional intelligence. It is never nice to be on the receiving end but sometimes people don’t know they are being passive-aggressive. Sometimes misunderstandings are at the heart of passive aggression. Attempting to find a common ground and establishing the best way to communicate is a good starting place. 

Leaders cannot allow toxic behaviour. Be a role model, clear about what the protocols are and what behaviour is not acceptable at work and who workers can go to when issues arise. If you witness such behaviour then call it out – remember that passive aggression is a form of bullying.
Encourage respect within a culture which avoids punishing someone who disagrees with you and instead encourages respectful differences in opinions. Encourage workmates to listen and respond well and openly to feedback.

Read next – Bullying in the workplace: thinking outside of the bullying box

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