5 Ways to Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior

Jen is constantly sarcastic. James shuts down and becomes silent when his point of view is not immediately accepted. After team meetings, Alanna engages in criticism and gossip with team members separately.

For Amanda, the VP of Human Resources at a growing engineering firm, these recent behaviors were threatening to cast a pall over the positive and collaborative culture she and other senior leaders had built over the past 6 years. Amanda recognized the patterns of passive aggressive behavior. What could she do to nip it in the bud, before it did real damage?

Recognizing Passive Aggressive Behavior

Passive aggressive behavior is more common than we’d like to admit. Essentially, it is an indirect expression of hostility — some have described it as anger with a smile. Passive aggressive people avoid dealing directly with something they disagree with. They skirt around frank straight-forward communication and express their opposition in a roundabout way:

  • Consistent criticism
  • Negative attitude
  • Sarcasm
  • Quietly sabotaging other’s efforts
  • Procrastination
  • Withholding information
  • Gossip
  • Arriving late to meetings
  • Forgetting important deliverables or deadlines
  • Misplacing important information 

The source of a person’s passive aggressive behavior can often be traced back to low self-esteem, a belief that they lack power, and a fear of direct confrontation. Regardless, passive aggressive people are incredibly frustrating and unproductive — not only for the “target” of the behavior, but truly, for the passive aggressive person as well.

Is Your Organization Contributing to the Problem?

First, Amanda realized she had to ask herself the question, “Is the company doing anything to precipitate this behavior?

Passive aggressive behavior often takes root in environments where there’s no safe way to express alternative points of view, concerns, or disagreement. If employees can’t question an assumption about the company’s strategy and priorities, or raise a concern about the CEO’s newest project without having their head handed to them, they may resort to sarcasm, back-channel gossip, or other passive aggressive behaviors to express themselves. Read more about building a positive, open culture in Arden Coaching’s blog, “Essentials of Team Performance: Trust,” and “Essentials of Team Performance: Healthy Conflict.”

5 Ways Amanda is Helping Her Organization Address the Issue

After assessing the situation, Amanda felt that was not the case. She worked with the senior team on the following approaches:

1. Understand and call out the behavior for what it is: anger and hostility. Once Amanda and the rest of the senior team saw the behaviors in that light — instead of brushing it off or saying, “That’s James being James” — it made it easier for them to deal with negative passive aggressive behaviors directly.

2. Be direct with the person, but don’t make it personal. It’s so tempting to fight fire with fire. But it is critical to avoid emotional accusations, and pointing the finger with, “You are…” or “You did…” It is more constructive to use phrases like “I” and “we” and to stay away from any perception of a personal attack — remember, Amanda and the senior team are doing this because they want to keep Jen, James, and Alanna on-board and productive. “I noticed that you followed-up with several team members individually after our team meeting about things you did not bring up during the meeting” is more constructive than “You are constantly sharing your opinions and criticisms with team members behind the curtain.”

3. Be direct with the person, but be specific. When Amanda began addressing passive aggressive behaviors directly, she always used a specific example or a particular incident. A general statement like, “Jen, your comments are always sarcastic!” will get you nowhere — and will only stoke the flames of passive aggressive behavior. Targeting a specific occurrence is more effective in making the point, defining the issue, and making progress.

4. Establish expectations and define consequences. James shuts down when his point of view is not immediately accepted. James needs to understand that the team setting is intended to be an open forum for (respectful) questioning of assumptions, exploration of alternative points of view, and potential pros and cons. Lively, honest, open discussion is the expectation. James also needs to understand that there will be repercussions if the expectation is not met: for example, he will be excused from the team and another person from his department with similar expertise will take his place. Amanda has made it clear to the rest of the senior team that, to be effective, consequences cannot be idle threats — the company needs to be ready to act in exactly the way it has promised if expectations are not met.

5. Don’t try to change the person. It may be tempting to get Alanna to change her stripes, but it is an effort fraught with potholes and designed to fail. It is not your job. Only Alanna can make a change in herself — her mindset, attitude, and behavior. And who knows what the root causes might be? An executive coach may be able to help, but Alanna needs to be coachable. It is not a change that can be forced on someone. For more, read “Executive Coaching is Not ‘Training.’ You Must be Coachable!

Leaders Need to Deal with Unproductive Behaviors Head On 

Yes, this is a pain! It is hard to have these conversations, and it is difficult because passive aggressive people are masking their true feelings. For more, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Dealing with Passive Aggressive Behavior.”

Amanda knew that, as a leader, she could not simply sidestep the problem (“Well, we just won’t put James on any new projects”). Passive aggressive behavior must be dealt with directly — but the right way — to achieve your organizational goals.

To learn more about communication skills, navigating difficult conversations, and building leadership skills at your organization, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.