5 Ways to Deal with Passive-Aggressive People

Don’t let it get under your skin.

Whether a co-worker calls you out in a meeting or your direct report is intentionally inefficient, passive-aggressive behavior at the office can drag down a whole team. Here’s how to stop it in its tracks. 5 Ways to Deal with Passive-Aggressive People

The Skill Set: How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive People

1. Know how to spot it

Passive-aggressive behavior is a deliberate—but covert—way of expressing angry feelings, according to Signe Wilson, author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces. It comes from a fear of conflict. “The person believes their life will only get worse if other people know they’re angry, so they express their feelings indirectly,” she explains. She shares a few examples of this type of behavior: carrying out tasks inefficiently, choosing not to take action to prevent a problem from occurring, embarrassing co-workers in meetings and using email to avoid face-to-face confrontation. 

2. Choose to either avoid or engage in conflict

A passive-aggressive person is actively avoiding confrontation, which leaves you with two choices, according to Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London: Be upfront (which creates conflict) or respond passive-aggressively (and continue avoiding conflict). “For example, if someone says of your latest project, ‘That was much better than expected,’ you can either say ‘Thank you; that means so much to me,’ and continue avoiding conflict or say, ‘Do you mean you had low expectations?’, which addresses conflict head-on,” says Tomas. 

3. Remain emotionally neutral

“Avoid sarcastic responses, angry tones of voice and aggressive body language,” says Signe. “Instead, respond to a backhanded compliment, a biting joke or an undermining comment in simple, unemotional, fact-based ways.” For example, Signe advises that, if a co-worker derides your work on a project during a meeting, you can either briefly state what you contributed to the project without refuting or directly referring to your co-worker’s comments or—preferably—avoid an immediate response. “Most people will see right through the passive-aggressive person’s attempt to embarrass you,” she explains. “Your silence will amplify and expose the passive aggressive person’s unprofessional behavior—an exposure they will not enjoy and will seek to avoid in the future.” 

4. Bring it offline

“Passive-aggressive people often use electronic communication, since face-to-face, direct communication causes them discomfort,” says Signe. If you get a passive-aggressive email, respond in person or, if that’s not possible, pick up the phone. “Whatever you do, step away from your keyboard as soon as possible,” warns Signe. Our motto? Never press “send” while you’re angry. Respond IRL in an emotionally neutral way. 

5. Take preventative measures

If a co-worker is being passive-aggressive by intentionally missing deadlines, Signe suggests setting crystal clear expectations, which takes away their ability to make excuses. She also reiterates that it’s important to remain neutral, responding factually, rather than emotionally. “Take away the gratification a passive-aggressive person gets from undermining your work,” says Signe. “If they see that they’re successful in frustrating you, they feel they’ve succeeded, which reinforces their behavior.”


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