8 Things You Can Do to Stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace [Infographic | Quiz]

8 Things You Can Do to Stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace [Infographic | Quiz]
Nayomi Chibana

Written by:
Nayomi Chibana

Jul 08, 2016

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One of the most irritating things you’ll ever have to deal with in your workplace is a passive-aggressive coworker.

We’ve all seen this behavior before--and perhaps been guilty of it at some point:

Think of the coworker who doesn’t say hello when he sees you in the hallway. When you write him an email to ask for important deliverables, he doesn’t respond. He even actively undermines you but acts like nothing’s wrong when you confront him.

Sound familiar?

Sadly, this type of behavior is more common than you think.

As a below-the-radar technique for expressing discontent, it’s one of the preferred methods for venting anger in the workplace--just short of crossing a red line and risk getting fired.

According to Signe Whitson, author of the book The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, workplaces are fertile ground for this sort of behavior because the direct expression of emotions and thoughts is not only not welcomed, it can be downright unprofessional in many cases.

Imagine confronting this infuriating behavior by calling your coworker a “passive-aggressive” or, worse still, a “jerk”? This wouldn’t go over too well, to say the least.

To help you root out passive-aggressive behavior in your workplace (and find out if you’re secretly a passive-aggressive yourself), we’ve visualized a list of warning signs and tips in the form of an interactive infographic and quiz.


What exactly is “passive-aggressive”?

Whitson defines passive-aggressive behavior as a “deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger.”

In a sense, it’s the perfect workplace crime because it allows employees to intentionally and underhandedly sabotage productivity and imperil others’ success through justifiable actions--and do it without leaving incriminating evidence.

For example, if a coworker secretly believes that you’re lazy and incompetent, he can take revenge or vent his pent up anger by purposely procrastinating, doing a shoddy job or withholding information from you--and then blame it all on some “miscommunication” or getting sick.



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Many employees are guilty of some form of passive-aggressiveness, so before you’re quick to label your colleague as such, think for a second if you exhibit any of these tell-tale signs of this destructive behavior:


  • Agrees to do something even when they have no intention of following through with it, and then blames the inaction on things that were out of their control.


  • Smiles and appears to be agreeable, but then undermines or even sabotages other people behind their backs.


  • Withholds important information from others so that they won’t succeed.


  • Has a negative attitude and indirectly expresses it through procrastination, stubbornness, backhanded compliments, gossip or sarcasm.


  • Doesn’t share their honest opinion, even when asked.


  • Procrastinates to express their anger or sabotage projects they don’t see value in.


  • Gets angry with others but doesn’t tell them why.


  • Says things that don’t match their actions.


  • Avoids confrontation at all costs.

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There are many reasons why the workplace is the perfect breeding ground for passive-aggressive behavior, according to Whitson:

Human relationships

  • Where you have human relationships, you’ll have passive aggressiveness. It’s the preferred method of communicating for those who have difficulty expressing their emotions and thoughts openly and directly.

Perceptions of self-worth

  • The office is a place where perceptions of competence, talent and credibility are built. At the same time, it’s a place where emotions surrounding these delicate issues of self-worth cannot be vented, making it susceptible to veiled hostility and resentment.

Authority figures

  • Whenever authority figures come into play--as in a workplace--it triggers past memories of good or bad experiences with a parent, teacher, leader, etc.

Contractual agreements

  • Most workplaces make it difficult for employees to get canned over things that cannot be proven. There’s always a plausible explanation that can protect the passive-aggressive employee, such as: “I used my sick days.”

Digital communication

  • Email communication has made it a whole lot easier to be passive aggressive. It allows the communicator to mask hostility, which would normally be easier to detect through tone of voice and body language.



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If you think this type of behavior is “all in your head” or just petty stuff, think again. Passive aggressiveness can actually erode or even destroy a company’s culture.

Entrepreneur Amy Rees Anderson shares her first-hand account of the spread of this cancer throughout a once-promising company.

First, it started with several passive-aggressive members of upper management. Then, it spread to lower-level employees. Those who were once true believers in the company’s long-term goals eventually became 9 to 5ers who were hanging on just to pay the bills until they could find something better elsewhere.

Meanwhile, those in leadership kept up the tune that “everything was going great” even when they knew it wasn’t. Slowly, this lack of honesty and respect started to permeate the entire company, affecting morale and lowering the level of engagement of its employees.



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The key to eliminating the scourge that is passive aggressiveness in your workplace starts with you. First, examine your own actions to see if you exhibit any of these behaviors, and then find ways to spread this same mindfulness to others within your organization.

Whitson recommends taking these basic steps to rooting it out:

Don’t copy the behavior.

  • If someone in your workplace really gets under your skin with their passive aggressiveness, don’t fall into the trap of mirroring their behavior or lashing out angrily--that’s exactly what they want. Instead, be responsible for your own actions and behave appropriately.

Set clear expectations.

  • In order to reduce the amount of shady, gray areas surrounding workloads, deadlines and the quality of what is delivered, set clear expectations: Who’s responsible and by when.

Call out the behavior when you see it.

  • Instead of letting sarcastic comments slip by and ignoring negative body language, identify it calmly and transparently. For example, if someone rolls their eyes, ask “I noticed you rolled your eyes. How are you reacting to this discussion?”

Make room for dissent.

  • Allow people to feel that they can openly express their thoughts and opinions, even when they are controversial or not necessarily in line with what the rest think.

Encourage direct communication.

  • Instead of letting passive aggressives communicate via email, promote face-to-face communication.

Practice mindfulness

  • Be aware of what you’re feeling and why. This will help you communicate more openly and effectively and allow you to vent your frustrations in a constructive manner.

Face the fear of confrontation.

  • In the process of rooting out passive aggressiveness, you may very well have to face more conflict that you’re used to, but in the end, this will be more constructive than letting unresolved issues fester.

Practice assertive communication.

  • When pointing out passive aggressive behavior, be specific, not general. Point out what’s bothering you, with facts and details, but do it in a calm, respectful manner.


PASSIVE-AGRESSIVE Infographic1 copy

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By practicing each of these consistently and respectfully, you're bound to see a vast improvement in your workplace relationships.

Remember, the key to a healthy corporate culture is honest, open communication that doesn't necessarily promise a conflict-free environment, but does allow pent-up anger or frustrations to find a constructive outlet.

Do you recognize any of the warning signs in your organization or workplace? If so, don't forget to share this with your friends and peers.

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    About the Author

    Nayomi Chibana is a journalist and writer for Visme’s Visual Learning Center. Besides researching trends in visual communication and next-generation storytelling, she’s passionate about data-driven content.

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