Identify and Respond to Passive Aggression at Work

By Meghna Bahl, SPHR Oct 29, 2010
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Question: How can managers identify and respond to passive aggressive behavior at work?

Answer: Passive aggressive behavior is an indirect form of resistance in which a person seems to comply with the expectations and needs of others but resists them with behaviors such as manipulation, inactivity and playing dumb. It is a subtle yet effective way to avoid the outcomes of honest confrontation and direct exposure to an issue.

It is not easy to identify passive aggressive behaviors, simply because they are manifested in a veiled fashion. However, organizations can look for indicators such as the frustration level of managers who try to change processes, customer complaints, excessive gossip and an inability of teams to complete projects as signs that passive aggressive behavior might be present.

HR professionals and managers should be alert to individuals who make big promises but fail to deliver results as well as individuals whose behavior causes others to express feelings of guilt, annoyance or anger.

Once submerged hostility of this sort has been identified, HR can encourage employees to engage in benign forms of confrontation to defuse tensions. It is important to separate facts from feelings when managing passive aggressive behavior.

Below are some common expressions of passive aggressive behavior and some tips on how to respond.



Behavior



How It Is Expressed



How to Respond

Blaming

Refusing to own up, rationalizing mistakes, avoiding decisions and using personal problems as an excuse to dump work on others.

Do not step in to do the job for these individuals. Document facts, create records and avoid knee-jerk reactions.

Ignoring

Using silence to provoke others, overlooking the needs of others and excluding co-workers.

Clarify expectations and “kill with compassion.” Do not take it personally or respond with silence.

Playing Victim

Making excuses, covering up poor performance, begging for sympathy over workload.

Monitor performance and reiterate deadlines. Ignore victim behavior.

Controlling

Manipulating others, using sly threats with subordinates, venting frustration.

Get person to see how supporting ideas is a win-win solution; do not share emotions.

Obstructionism

Know-it-all behavior, such as holding on to an opinion despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Let the person know that their ideas, as well as the ideas of others, are important for the team.

Compliant rule breaking

Flying under the radar to avoid undesirable tasks or events by scheduling work or travel that makes it impossible to comply with a request.

Demonstrate emotional maturity but making it clear that the person’s intent is obvious. Don’t argue over who is right.

Sarcasm

Displaying sugar-coated hostility or humor.

Defuse by saying “That sounded like sarcasm.”

Backstabbing

Taking credit for other people’s work; treating subordinates poorly while playing up to authority figures; sabotaging work directly or through gossip.

Avoid responding with additional gossip or provocation. Refrain from accepting ownership for mistakes caused by sabotage.


To support efforts to eradicate passive aggression, organizations should have clear policies to make it clear that there is zero tolerance for direct or indirect actions taken by employees to disrupt or interfere with the work of others. If such behaviors are spotted, offer guidance and take swift corrective action.

Meghna Bahl, SPHR, is an HR generalist with eight years of corporate and consulting experience at two global companies. She can be contacted at meghnabahl@gmail.com.

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