Dealing with Passive Aggressive Behavior

Passive aggressive behavior is the “common cold” of businesses and organizations. It’s an everyday occurrence, readily found, and easy to pick-up. It’s rarely fatal, but it saps energy and kills productivity. Passive aggressive employees are unhappy, disengaged, and dissatisfied. As an executive or team leader, it is critical to recognize passive aggressive behavior and address it immediately.

Passive aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility. It is characterized by the avoidance of direct confrontation and the use of indirect opposition. Examples of passive aggressive behavior include a consistently negative attitude, procrastination, sarcasm, misplacing important materials, and back-channel gossip.

How to Short Circuit Passive Aggressive Behavior

Remain calm! Passive aggressive behavior can be maddeningly difficult to pin down. Responding emotionally will make the situation worse, and may be exactly what the passive aggressive person wants — remember, their behavior is based on avoiding direct confrontation. An emotional flare-up on your part provides an escape from the situation, and someone to blame.

It helps to think about what may be motivating the person being passive aggressive. They may be extremely uncomfortable with conflict. They may believe that, somehow, you should understand how they are feeling. Being able to identify what triggers them may help you deliver your information in a way that doesn’t set off the passive aggressive land mine. But don’t overthink it, and do not assume that you can change the fundamental nature of the person. Recognize it for what it is: an inability to share concerns, issues, and emotions in a helpful, positive manner.

Concentrate on what the person is saying or doing, not how they are saying or doing it. What is the essence of the message behind the behavior? For example, ignore the sarcasm or the procrastination and think about what the person is trying to express. Do they feel they have been shut out of the decision-making process? Do they think the budget estimates are unrealistic? Do they feel their work is not valued? 

Engage in a substantive conversation. If you are able to determine what the person is attempting to communicate, draw them in with a conversation about their issue or concern. Share your understanding of their issue. You may be able to productively re-engage them by addressing their concerns unemotionally. Do not reference their behavior — keep the conversation focused on the subject — and never tell a passive aggressive person that they are passive aggressive.

Does your organization need more conflict? Sometimes people behave in a passive aggressive manner when they believe that expressing a concern or issue directly is riskier than being indirect. A healthy organizational or team culture that encourages people to be more direct about their concerns and creates space for constructive disagreement and resolution will enjoy far less passive aggressive behavior than a culture that stifles disagreement and “punishes” people who express their concerns. Arden Coaching is an authorized partner of The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ program. For more about managing conflict, and other essential team behaviors, visit

No one’s perfect — what’s your behavior? From time to time we are all susceptible to passive aggressive behavior. Mindful self-awareness is crucial for leaders. How often do you use sarcastic humor to indirectly highlight a concern you have about a project or an individual’s performance? How often do you agree with people in a team meeting, but criticize them privately in after-meetings?

It’s difficult to see ourselves the way others see us. A 360 Leadership Assessment is a remarkably helpful tool in this regard, and an excellent first step toward a healthier organizational culture.

While there are no sure-fire cures, these steps will help you reduce passive aggressive behavior in your organization. 

To learn more about 360 Leadership Assessment and executive coaching, contact us at [email protected] or 646.844.2233.