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Managing Difficult People: Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive people, rather than communicate openly about their negative feelings, operate subtlety in mean-spirited, maddening ways. This might include not acknowledging others, taking pot shots in meetings, or spreading rumors. The behavior can escalate to attempts to sabotage leaders or co-workers by deliberately missing deadlines, coming late to meetings, going over the boss’s head to complain, or opposing requests made of them. Passive-aggressive behavior in the work place can be destructive if not effectively managed. Use these strategies to reduce the negative impact and help the staff person learn productive ways to communicate.

Smoke it out.
Passive-aggressive individuals have learned that they can get by with some of their covert behavior since rarely does anyone address it. Act inconsistently with their expectations, making the behavior less effective. When they snipe during a meeting to the colleague sitting next to them, just loud enough for everyone to hear, smoke them out by asking a question, Is there something you’d like to add to the discussion? Is there something you disagree with? If the passive-aggressive staff member’s gossip comes to your attention, set up a meeting to say you have a sense there is a problem and you would like to know more about what it is. Don’t ignore the behavior; go after it. Coach other staff members to avoid participating in gossip, redirecting the passive-aggressive person to address the issue directly.

Make it safe.
When escalated forms of passive-aggression occur, a conversation is necessary to deal with the problem before more damage is done. Reduce the threat by taking a supportive stance. Start by saying what you’ve noticed and that you are wondering if anything is bothering the person. Let him/her know that you are always willing to discuss concerns and that your door is open. Try to determine what might be the real issues that have caused the passive-aggressive staff person to act out. Be clear that the behavior being demonstrated has to change and discuss alternatives to change. At the same time, know that the surface behavior is symptomatic of other issues that the passive-aggressive person has not directly addressed.

Expect denial.
When you do raise your concern, expect that the passive-aggressive person, at first, will deny there is a problem. Remember that direct communication is uncomfortable and even frightening, because the comfort zone of the passive aggressive person is indirectness. You may find, however, that your message got through and behavior change occurs, even though your concern was not fully acknowledged.

Set up regular communication.
For a longer-term solution, check-in regularly with the passive-aggressive person, providing an opportunity for on-going, more open communication. Through repeated exposure to conversations, you can make the communication about their frustrations more comfortable. Make honesty less threatening. Don’t let the passive-aggressive person get too far away for too long, regressing to a more destructive form of communication.

Passive-aggressive behavior never helps. It only hurts. With patience and consistency you can turn this counterproductive approach to conflict into a more open, straightforward pattern, benefiting both the individual and the team.




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