5 Ways To Deal With Passive-Aggressive Behavior At Work

Passive-aggressive behavior has become a prevalent issue in the workplace, with 70% of Americans experiencing varying levels of such behaviors, according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Go1. The study, which involved 2,000 employed adults, revealed that 69% view passive-aggressive behavior as a workplace problem, and almost half (48%) believe it has increased since the pandemic. This negative behavior can manifest in various ways, including talking behind colleagues' backs, resentment, silence, sarcasm, and dishonesty. It can occur face-to-face or through digital communication channels like email, text, and instant messaging.

Remote work and the dispersal of employees have contributed to the rise of passive-aggressive behavior. The distance and lack of face-to-face interaction make it easier for individuals to express subtle sarcasm and avoid direct conflict. Additionally, rebuilding company culture and addressing workplace challenges are ongoing struggles for many organizations. If left unaddressed, passive-aggressive behavior can lead to toxic work environments, heightened stress levels, and decreased productivity.

To tackle this issue, here are five healthy approaches:

1. Look for subtle signs: Passive-aggressive behavior can be subtle, so pay attention to red flags such as colleagues "forgetting" to share important information or giving you the silent treatment. If you notice a pattern emerging over time, it's necessary to address it.

2. Deal with it directly: When confronting a colleague or employee displaying passive-aggressive behavior, engage in a direct conversation. Avoid using "you" statements to prevent the person from feeling attacked and becoming defensive. Instead, explain how their behavior is affecting the team, providing specific examples. Remain calm and assure them of your support. Often, individuals may be unaware of their behavior and its impact on the organization.

3. Identify the cause: Approach the conversation with empathy and aim to understand the underlying cause of the issue. For instance, if an employee feels excluded from meetings, clarify the reasons behind their exclusion. Perhaps they have experienced frustration due to a co-worker's recent promotion that they believed they deserved. Understanding their motivations can help in finding effective solutions.

4. Implement soft skills training: Passive-aggressive behavior often stems from poor communication skills. Providing soft skills training can help address this issue. Ashleigh Loughnan, Chief People Officer at Go1, emphasizes the importance of reinforcing a message through practice and behaviors. Soft skills, such as communication, leadership, and problem-solving, play a crucial role, especially in the context of hybrid or remote work models.

5. Maintain open communication channels: Individuals who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior struggle with expressing themselves openly. To foster positive change, encourage feedback, and create an open dialogue within the workplace. Let them know that they have the option to reach out to you via email, Slack, or other channels to address their concerns. By promoting two-way communication, you establish a psychologically safe environment that encourages collaboration and creative problem-solving.

Dealing with passive-aggressive co-workers can feel challenging, but it's important to address the issue while maintaining positive relationships. Avoid engaging in similar behavior as a form of retaliation. By taking the high road, you can cultivate a team atmosphere that supports transparency and constructive feedback.  

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