How to Deal With a Passive Aggressive Co-worker

We’ve all been the victim of a passive aggressive co-worker.  There’s no mistaking them.  They’re the one who:  Says everything is fine, but says it with an attitude; gossips about others; says really mean things, but ends it with “just kidding!”; always plays the role of the victim; withholds information from you that is pertinent to your job; makes things personal that shouldn’t be personal;  or procrastinates or pretends that they don’t understand in order to get out of doing something that they don’t want to do.  Passive-aggressive behaviour is subtle and difficult to respond to because the passive-aggressor basically attacks you and then hides.

Why do they do it?  There could be a variety of reasons that the passive-aggressors are the way that they are:  They may feel threatened by you; they may have low self-esteem; they may be unable to deal with confrontation; or they may just want to be aggressive without suffering any consequences.  Unless you are their therapist, it is a waste of time to ponder why they do the things that they do.  In the end, you just have to figure out a way to work around it.  Here are some tips that may help:

Call them on it.  Passive-aggressors depend on your silence.  They like to make a sarcastic comment and leave you wondering what they meant by it.  Force the passive-aggressor to explain themselves.  For example you could say, “You’re saying that everything is fine, but I get the feeling that it isn’t.  Is there anything else that I can do to help?”  or “When you just said, ‘thanks for being on time, Jane!’ it felt like you were suggesting that I’m often late.  Have you found my attendance to be a problem?”  Be professional and stay focused on the facts.   When you probe in this way, you force the passive-aggressor to be honest about their feelings and their intentions.  Don’t be surprised if they retreat as most passive-aggressors hate conflict, but by calling them out you will make them think twice before they make a snide comment.

Talk to them in person.  Passive-aggressors love sending emails.  It allows them to carefully craft their message and deliver it in an indirect way.  As an added bonus, they can bcc anyone they want on the email.  Don’t let them hide out; tell them that you would prefer to discuss the matter in person.

Don’t get lured into a battle with them.  You will never win!  If you respond to a passive-aggressor in an aggressive way, they will run away, making you look like the bad guy.  If you attempt your own campaign of passive aggression, they will beat you.  Remember, this is where they feel the most comfortable and they’ve had a lot more practice than you.

Ask for their suggestions.  If you find yourself butting heads with a passive-aggressor, step back and ask for their suggestion.  They probably won’t want to give you one because they would prefer to critique than problem solve.  However, by asking for their feedback, you are more likely to get them on your side.

Don’t trust them.  Passive-aggressors are not honest communicators.  They’ve spent their life getting their way through manipulation and sarcasm.  Even if you are on good terms with a passive-aggressor, don’t let your guard down; they could be your friend today and your enemy tomorrow.  Whenever you’re working with a passive-aggressor, always keep a paper trail.

Even when you are working with difficult people, it is important that you maintain your own standards of professionalism and decency.  Know that the passive-aggressor is probably not a confident or happy person.  Rise above it, be kind, and remember that all your co-workers deserve your respect even if their behaviour annoys you.

(Written by Karen Bivand)

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One thought on “How to Deal With a Passive Aggressive Co-worker

  1. Anonymous March 5, 2013 / 7:33 pm

    I was waiting for an article like this all along. These people are very tricky and I have learned the art of dealing with passive-aggressive people for years. I completely agree with the section of the article which conveys one to not trust a passive-aggressive person as the truth resides in itself, they are not confident and happy people and it will show through their dishonesty.

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