Anger, Masked with a Smile: How to Handle Passive-Aggressive Workers

By Kathleen Doheny April 6, 2021
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Anger, Masked with a Smile: How to Handle Passive-Aggressive Workers

​One of your workers seems angry, but always smiles. Another, who usually meets deadlines, has suddenly become a hostile procrastinator. And a third, who typically contributes valuable input in meetings, has fallen silent.

All are likely signs of passive aggression, experts say.

Passive-aggressive workers "are the most frustrating and obnoxious people in any workplace," said Nora Femenia, an instructor at Florida International University and an expert in conflict resolution. 

Fortunately, managers can learn to recognize the patterns of passive-aggressive workers, then deftly guide workers to change that behavior, Femenia and other experts said. In the process, managers can maintain workplace productivity and morale, reduce their own stress levels and possibly help the passive-aggressive workers save their jobs. Here's how.

Understand the origins. "The passive-aggressive person is motivated by their fear of expressing their anger directly," said Signe Whitson, a counselor in Allentown, Pa., and co-author of The Angry Smile (Pro Ed, 2017), which discusses such behavior at work and in other situations. It's likely they learned in childhood that expressing anger was not acceptable. Therefore, Whitson said, they try to avoid direct expressions of anger. Being passive-aggressive, she added, ''is a deliberate but also a masked way that employees express their feelings of anger. It's a way to 'get back.' " It's a defensive and ingrained behavior.

Passive-aggressive people, Femenia said, worry that if they express anger, the target of their anger will abandon them—or, if it's their manager, fire them.

Learn the classic patterns. Passive aggression can manifest in a variety of ways, but it typically involves avoiding direct conflict. Look for:

  • Sulking, such as after being passed over for a promotion.
  • Clamming up. The silent treatment is especially passive-aggressive, as it keeps everyone wondering what is wrong.
  • Being sarcastic to the boss or co-workers.
  • Being hostile to the boss or co-workers.
  • Making excuses or blaming others for his or her shortcomings.
  • Being late for deadlines or the workday.  
  • "Forgetting" a meeting or deadline.
  • Avoiding face-to-face, telephone or Zoom discussion of issues in favor of notes or e-mails.
  • Needing to be in control of projects instead of being a ''team player."

Addressing the Behavior

Don't ignore it. Ignoring passive-aggressive behavior doesn't just lead to workplace disruption and lower productivity, Whitson said. As a manager, you may get so upset you eventually explode, and that over-the-top anger is bound to drive the anger-phobic worker further into withdrawal.

Don't become passive-aggressive. A manager might say to herself: "She's withholding information about the progress of a project? Fine, so will I."  This is counterproductive, Whitson said.

Communicate. Set up a meeting with the worker and choose your words carefully. Calling out passive-aggressive workers with conversations like "What are you doing?"  or "Why are you constantly late?" is likely to backfire, Whitson said. Instead, state what you notice—lateness, subpar work—and ask: "I'm wondering if you are upset that I asked you to work on this project."

Non-accusatory words are a must, agreed Andrea Brandt, a psychotherapist in Santa Monica, Calif., and author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013). Try "I've noticed I give you jobs or projects to do and you can't seem to get them done at the appointed time we have discussed. I'm wondering if you need more help." Stress the need for a team effort and that your goal is not just to get the job done, but to help the worker. One phrase worth trying, Brandt said, is "I can't help you if you can't tell me what's wrong."

Even if you take a helpful approach, the worker may still deny that there's a problem or that they are angry.  "Leave it there," Whitson said. "They realize their anger is not a secret anymore. As a manager, you have to be comfortable with a little silence." The hope, she said, is that the worker will think things over and return, admitting his or her disappointment or other reason for being upset. Then you can get somewhere—change the project or your deadlines, or come to some sort of agreement about the work.

Hold them accountable. Managers should firmly state what behavior is expected, said Cheryl Cran, founder and CEO of Next Mapping, a future-of-work consultancy in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She once coached a manager who had a worker always complaining privately that her co-workers neglected their projects. At group meetings, she would deny the complaint when it was brought up by the manager. She would say she was a team player, but then do other people's work so she could complain they were slacking. Cran suggested the manager hold her accountable for the two-faced behavior, ask her to recognize the damage this does to co-workers and herself, and set a timeline for change. It worked.

Let the worker know you are expecting good work, Femenia said. Give them positive reinforcement for previously well-done work. Then, be prepared to constantly supervise, at least for a while, to keep discouraging the bad patterns. When there is a lull in the project, ask questions, Femenia said, such as "How can I help?" or "Is there an obstacle to finishing on time?"

If the behavior continues, "managers have to up their game," Brandt said. Be direct. Some passive-aggressive people may not be aware or care how much their behavior angers others. Let them know how damaging their continued passive aggression is to co-workers and even to their job.   

Wait for results. Over time, Whitson said, the worker may realize "This passive-aggressive stuff doesn't work with this manager." Given time, the worker may even learn that expressing anger in a productive way has benefits.

Kathleen Doheny is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.  

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