It is a safe bet we could all share war stories about working with a passive-aggressive co-worker! With over 20 years of recruiting experience working at Search Firms, and Fortune 500 companies, and starting my own Executive Search Firm, TalentQ, I have learned a lot of great tools along the way.

Taking a step back and understanding what is driving the behavior and identifying ways to break down the barriers of communication can be monumental in improving relationships in the workplace.

What motivates passive aggressive behavior, and how does that influence the best way to deal with it?

Passive aggression is a learned behavior that begins when we are young and continues through adulthood. It’s easier to be passive aggressive than to be assertive. In our society we are taught anger is socially unacceptable. As we grow up we are taught to hide our anger, that’s where passive aggressive behavior surfaces. The best way to deal with passive aggressive is to create a safe environment and trusting relationship where the individual who is using passive aggressive characteristics can communicate honestly with you about their feelings. Once you have established a trusting relationship you can share ways they can modify their communication with you.

What’s the biggest mistake you see people make in dealing with passive aggressive personalities at work?

Why is this a mistake and what should be done differently? The biggest mistake I see people making in dealing with passive aggressive personalities at work is they approach their colleague only thinking about themselves. People are very one-sided. It’s ten times more effective when you can try to put yourself in the passive aggressive individual’s shoes and try to understand where they are coming from. Ask probing questions such as, “Help me understand…” “I’m listening…”

What’s the number one thing professionals should do when confronted with a passive aggressive coworker? Why is this so important?

Listen to them and ask clarifying questions. All they want is to be heard, if they are not sharing their frustration, verbally communicate to them that they can trust you and share their true thoughts and feelings. This enables them to feel more comfortable and share more openly.

Does how you deal with a passive aggressive coworker depend at all on your relative seniority?

How might it be different when addressing this issue with someone who is junior, senior, or equal in seniority to you? It shouldn’t however, seniority intimidates people into modifying their communication style. Meaning, most people will be much more reserved around authority figures. I encourage people to be courageous even with colleagues at a higher level. If you have more seniority than another, you may use your authority to strongly suggest the individual change their communication style. The best way to approach it would be to coach your subordinate on utilizing other communication tactics than passive aggression. The only thing we can control is our response to any situation. How you handle any situation with coworkers is part of your personal career brand. Again, I would listen and try to understand where they are coming from allow them to express their emotions, even if it is anger. Restate what they have said so they know you have heard them. Focus on building a relationship with them, focusing on the long-term, not just the transaction of the situation at hand.

What do you wish people understood about passive aggressive behavior in the workplace? Is it ever indicative of something bigger, like a bad culture fit, low workplace morale, etc.?

When people use this tactic it is very frustrating because the passive aggressive individual doesn’t tell you exactly what they want or how they feel. They are avoiding the situation or hiding their emotions. I truly believe our communication styles are ingrained in us as children and our upbringing. I would try to focus on building a relationship with them. Once they trust you their guard will go down and they will use less passive aggression. Passive aggressive behavior may indicate low workplace morale if there are many people using this tactic. These employees do not feel connected to the company. They may not trust they can share their true feelings. Create an open, honest trusting workplace and everyone will thrive!

Recently, I was interviewed on the subject of passive aggressive behavior for an article that was published on Glassdoor. To read the full published article click here.

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