Those covert attacks in the office can be maddening--and deeply destructive. Here's how to put a stop to them.
Avoiding responsibility for tasks, purposely missing deadlines, withholding important information, and going over a boss's head to make him or her appear incompetent--these just a few of the ways employees let passive aggression slip into the office.
Signe Whitson has made passive aggression her speciality. She's a licensed social worker, coauthor of the book "The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces" and COO of the Hagerstown, Maryland-based Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute. She defines passive aggression as "a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden or covert feelings of anger" and refers to a wide range of behaviors all designed to get back at another person without that person recognizing the underlying anger.
She says the workplace is rife with passive aggression if for no other reason that people spend the majority of their waking hours at work where they have relationships that--human nature being what it is--inevitably result in angry feelings of some sort.
"Sometimes the hierarchy of a workplace makes the direct expression of anger seem like insubordination," she says. "People feel like they can't be emotionally honest with someone who's in charge of their paycheck so they find ways to express their anger in these indirect passive-aggressive ways instead."
Whitson suggests a handful of strategies when dealing with these maddening covert attacks.
Don't mirror the anger.
Any passive-aggressive interaction involves two people: passive aggressive Player A who hopes Player B will respond angrily, essentially acting out Player A's anger.
"If Player B recognizes the passive-aggressive behavior for what it is and takes conscious steps not to engage in it, not to mirror the anger back, that's the best line of defense--being responsible for our own behavior and responses," Whitson says.
Foster direct communication.
It helps if management makes a conscious effort to foster conditions for direct and face-to-face communication instead of electronic communication since passive-aggressive types tend to frequently leave notes or use emails or texts.
"They're doing it specifically to avoid direct face-to-face communication or what they fear might be a confrontation," Whitson says.
There's less room for excuse making and finger pointing if you set crystal clear expectations regarding quantity of work, quality of work, whose responsibility it is, and when it's due as well as what will happen if expectations aren't met.
"[Setting] clear expectations [and] clear consequences makes it much more difficult for the passive-aggressive behavior to be successful in the workplace," Whitson says.
Allow for honesty.
Ideally your work environment is one in which if employees are upset about something they're allowed to voice it.
"They don't feel like they have to express that anger in these covert passive aggressive ways but if they're feeling cheated, or overlooked or overworked that they can bring it to someone's attention and their neck won't be chopped off," she says.
Ask about the anger.
While it's difficult to change an ingrained pattern of passive-aggressive behavior, calling someone on it can be effective.
"Say 'It seems like you're really angry about what's going on. It seems like you're really upset. Let's talk about it,'" Whitson suggests. "The last thing the passive-aggressive person wants to do is be called on their anger. They're working so hard to mask it and hide it behind all of these behaviors so it really is an effective technique for a boss or a supervisor."
It's also OK for employees to similarly confront a co-worker about his or her behavior but the key is not to get sucked into a tit for tat that escalates until the recipient--Player B--loses his cool.
"The passive-aggressive person by their nature is able to sort of keep their calm. It's the other person after going through this back and forth that eventually blows up," Whitson warns.
But what if it's your boss whose passive aggression is making your life hell? Check out How to Fix Your Dysfunctional Boss, which suggests some creative ideas to turn things around.
CHRISTINA DESMARAIS is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech startup community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com. @salubriousdish