3 Ways To Put A Passive-Aggressive Coworker In Their Place

There's nothing worse than a coworker who only speaks in underhanded code. Here's how to respond to them without losing your cool.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 24, 2024

When a person exhibits passive-aggressive behavior, they express negative feelings in a manner that conceals their true intentions, making it difficult for others to challenge or criticize them directly. Common phrases might include:

  • "I guess we'll meet whenever it's most convenient for you."
  • "Sure, we can do it your way if you think that's best."
  • "I think the presentation went well, if we're going by your standards."

Indirect expressions of hostility or resentment make transparent and direct confrontation challenging. However, there are effective techniques to manage and respond to passive-aggressive people. Here are three strategies to handle such situations constructively:

1. Stay Calm and Collected

When someone's actions don't match their words, and you feel confused, hurt or unsettled after interacting with them, they might be exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior. Common signs include sarcastic remarks, the silent treatment, and subtle jabs disguised as jokes, such as:

  • "Nice job, I guess you're aiming for average."
  • Ignoring a colleague's questions during a meeting.
  • "I'll get to it eventually."
  • "Oh, you finally decided to show up to work today!"

Instead of getting offended or reacting to such comments, maintain your composure and think clearly. Overreacting can reinforce the behavior, escalate conflict and may even result in the individual denying any hidden intentions while continuing their behavior.

A study published in March 2019 in Frontiers in Psychology found that mindful communication within interpersonal interactions and social relationships at work from leaders significantly enhances follower relationship satisfaction. This improvement is attributed to the promotion of more skillful emotional and interpersonal interactions within the workplace.

Imagine you're in a meeting, and a colleague makes a sarcastic comment about your recent project. Instead of getting defensive or retaliating with a snide remark, take a deep breath and calmly respond, "I appreciate your feedback. Could you please clarify what you mean?" Asking for clarification can prompt them to think twice about their statements and may help them recognize their behavior. This response also acknowledges the comment without escalating the tension and gives them a chance to express their true concerns.

2. Do Not Try To Reply To Them In Their Language

Addressing and confronting passive-aggressive behavior promptly and assertively can help resolve misunderstandings and promote healthier communication in the workplace.

Imagine Emma as she attends a meeting. She notices that her colleague Sarah often rolls her eyes and mutters under her breath whenever Emma speaks, creating a negative atmosphere. After the meeting, Emma decides to approach Sarah directly and assertively. She says, "Sarah, I've noticed you often react negatively whenever I contribute ideas. This behavior makes collaboration much more difficult. Can we discuss what's bothering you so we can improve our teamwork?" in a neutral and understanding tone.Sarah is now forced to respond in a direct manner.

Being assertive and clear in your communication is key to addressing passive-aggressive behavior. A study found that using "I" statements significantly reduces hostility and helps effectively express feelings without using blaming language. So the next time someone is being passive aggressive with you try saying "I feel hurt when you make comments like that. Can we talk about it?" instead of "What's your problem?," or worse be passive aggressive right back at them.

3. Express Your Feelings in the Present Moment

Passive aggressiveness can be uncomfortable and often leaves us quietly questioning what we did to warrant or incite the aggressor's behavior. While the root causes of passive-aggressive behavior are usually deep-seated and best explored in therapy, there are effective techniques you can use to express your feelings in the moment when someone engages in passive-aggressive communication:

  • Addressing passive-aggressive behavior as it happens is essential. Expressing your feelings in the moment can prevent the behavior from becoming a pattern and encourage immediate resolution. Imagine you are at a work dinner and a colleague makes a passive-aggressive comment about your "interesting life choices," taking advantage of the candid atmosphere. You could calmly respond and say, "I feel uncomfortable when you say things like that. Can we keep the conversation positive?" Addressing the comment immediately sets a clear boundary and communicates your expectations.
  • Collaborate on solutions. Encourage direct communication by collaborating with the person to find solutions. Discussing and resolving underlying issues can improve the relationship and reduce passive-aggressive behavior. If a colleague constantly undermines your work through passive-aggressive behavior, suggest a meeting to discuss any concerns. You could say, "I notice there's some tension between us. Let's sit down and talk about how we can work together more effectively."
  • Set and enforce clear boundaries. Clearly communicate your boundaries and consistently enforce them. If passive-aggressive behavior persists despite your efforts, consider limiting your interactions with the person to protect your well-being.

Don't hesitate to seek support from friends, family, or professionals if dealing with passive-aggressive behavior becomes overwhelming. A therapist or counselor can provide valuable insights and strategies for managing such situations.

If a colleague's passive-aggressive behavior affects your work environment, consider discussing the issue with a supervisor or HR representative. Document your interactions and present your concerns professionally, focusing on finding a resolution.

Do you think you are the one engaging in passive-aggressive behavior? Find out by taking this test: Passive Aggression Scale

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