Passive-aggressive behavior is toxic just about any way you slice it. By definition, people use it to express a variety of negative emotions without being direct. For example, a passive-aggressive person might say "I'm not mad" when they clearly are, purposely procrastinate on stuff they said they'd do for you, or make wistful, guilt-inducing statements. But passive-aggression is particularly problematic in the office, where it slowly can erode a business from the inside. These are the top reasons you need to cut it off fast when you see it (and how to do it).
The trust necessary for effective teamwork and mutual career support nosedives.
Passive-aggressive behavior can include tactics like:
- Asking confrontation-like questions (e.g., "Why would you think that?!").
- Doling out a backhanded compliment.
- Ignoring you.
- Leaving someone out.
In all these instances, the target of the passive-aggression isn't sure the toxic individual is on their side. They stop seeing the toxic person as a confidant or reliable partner.
Communications become inefficient or break down altogether.
Recipients of passive-aggressive behavior often feel like they have to defend themselves, their choices, or their actions in some way. Because of this, the focus of communication becomes who's right and who's wrong. Tactics like ignoring co-workers or withholding instructions also increase the need for clarifications or make it difficult to know what to tell others. Projects can be delayed or clients lost as a result.
Confidence levels plummet.
One of the goals of passive-aggressive people, even if it's subconscious, is to take others down a peg or two. Doing so helps them cope with feelings like jealousy, inadequacy, loneliness, or lack of control. Their behaviors lead recipients to feel guilty or question their decisions/intelligence. And the less confident people are, the less they like to speak up, take on new projects or positions, or even seek the mentorships/sponsorships they need. Confidence issues also can mean slower communications and a reduction of face-to-face interactions, making it difficult for superiors or team members to get a real sense of capabilities, goals. or skill sets. As people try to figure out what they can and can't do, they can become anxious, sensitive, and stressed. Those negative feelings further affect performance, including decision making.
Authority becomes something to question.
Some types of passive-aggressive behaviors are meant to protest decisions or behaviors from others who have authority. It is, in this way, a subtle form of insubordination. For example, if someone who reports to you says, "Yes, I'll be at that meeting!" or "OK, I'll have it done by Friday!" and then doesn't show up or do the work, they're essentially telling you that you can't control what they do. And if you don't address that question of authority immediately, if you let the passive-aggressive person get away with it without consequences, you send the message that others in the company can do whatever they want, too. While you always want to make trust the foundation of the authority you have (that is, you have to earn it), to maintain efficiency, you also need to be clear, with kindness, about who has their hand on the rudder of your ship.
How to cut off the behavior.
Ideally, because passive-aggression stems from insecurities, the best way to handle it and stop the behavior is to acknowledge what you've seen and build the individual's self-esteem as early as possible.
- Invite an open discussion of the individual's fears and needs. Your goal is a genuine understanding of their history and why the issue at hand matters to them.
- Offer praise as appropriate and ask for their input to help them feel validated.
- Use humor when appropriate. It's a great icebreaker!
- Make it clear what you will and will not tolerate in a loving way, offering boundaries, consequences, and support.
- Watch how you phrase things (e.g., instead of demands or accusations, use phrases like "Would you please...", "It would help me if you..." or "I noticed that...).
- Offer more check-in or update points to reduce procrastination opportunities.
- Create and refer back to an agreement against the passive-aggressive behavior.
- Focus on specifics, documenting as appropriate (e.g., "Three out of four reports were late this week" instead of "You don't turn assignments in on time").
Change won't necessarily happen overnight, but it will happen. And the best part is, by taking action with a passive-aggressive person, you don't just protect yourself and your company. You help a person feel better about themselves, improving their ability to have relationships, be successful, and live a good life. That's more valuable than any revenue your accounts could show.