Protecting Ourselves from a Passive-Aggressive Co-worker

Protecting ourselves from a passive-aggressive co-worker is something we will all need to do at some point in our careers. A most ingenious way of expressing negativity, this type of behavior offers all of the satisfaction of overt hostility without any of the consequences. When confronted, the offender simply turns the tables. It is all in your imagination.

Targets of the passive-aggressive can feel like poor Gladys Kravitz on the classic TV series Bewitched. The sole mortal aside from Darren to consistently witness Samantha’s magic, she was perennially left to question her sanity. No one else was able to validate her experiences!

Putting an opponent on the defensive is a key strategy in this kind of contest. We may never be able to control the actions of others. But we can understand the dynamics behind this phenomena to better safeguard ourselves.

What  is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive-aggressive behavior is acting out hostility, insecurity, resentment, rivalry and other emotions that are considered inappropriate to directly express. Examples include:

  • backhanded compliments
  • procrastination
  • chronic tardiness/absenteeism
  • illness
  • gossip
  • sabotage
  • sarcasm

What causes Passive Aggressive-Behavior?

Individual Personalities – We all dislike  confrontation, but some are completely adverse to it.

Imbalance of Power – Openly expressing grievances can have consequences on the job. There is a reason everyone let the emperor walk around in his underwear. Dissatisfaction, however, will always manifest itself in one way or another.

Situational Norms – If a co-worker has challenging life circumstances or shatters when they receive negative feedback, others may take their frustration underground to avoid being seen as heartless.

Competitive Environments – Workplaces that encourage both team loyalty and direct competition among employees are breeding grounds for unspoken resentment.  Salespeople and those in the arts are two groups of professionals notorious for bumping egos indirectly.

Tips for Protecting Ourselves from a Passive-Aggressive Co-worker

This is the tricky part. There does not seem to be a consensus on the best way to fight it. While some experts advise calling it out, others claim this just makes them defensive if done improperly. There is no universal solution. It is a trial and error process to find out what works best in each unique circumstance:

Assess the situation. Could it be temporary? Someone said yes when they really meant no. Their fatigue just slipped out in unintended ways. Perhaps it will fade with time. At the other extreme is chronic gaslighting, which is about the perpetrator’s need for control. This type of dysfunction rarely goes away on its own.

Notify HR. An iffy proposition. On the surface, passive-aggressive people can be consummate employees and team players.  If you are not believed, you may look like the instigator.

Use humor. It depends on the person. I remember a colleague who had a “frenemy” relationship with  everyone in the office. One day, they gave me one of their famous double-edged compliments. “You look great……….for a woman your age!” I shot back, “That is because you throw me so much shade all my wrinkles have reversed.” Message received.

Apply even-handed candidness. Sabotaging your work is a real possibility here. You never know which suggestions are valid, and which will undermine you. You have as much faith in their “constructive criticism” as beauty tips from Lucy to Ricky’s ex-girlfriends. Instead of being confrontational, consistently state what you believe the outcome to be. “I think forcing the vote now will  kill the deal.” Or, “I think rearranging the first paragraph will confuse the reader.” You are letting them know you are on to them without completely outing their motives. Sometimes this wears them down if you stick to it long enough.

Keep yourself covered. Have e-mail backups for all communications. Double check work that has their input. Don’t let them be the go-between for office communication. Reassure yourself that this is about self-preservation, not paranoia.

Accept the Lessons

In the end, perhaps the most important advice is to accept that hardcore passive-aggressive behavior is a tenacious opponent to defeat. If it were a garden weed, it would be Bermuda grass. If it were a microorganism, it would be a tardigrade, those  wee “water bears” who  can be starved, blasted into space, nuked and still survive. Sometimes, the only thing we can take away are lessons. We can examine our own actions to make sure we are not contributing to the problem. We can reaffirm the value of open, honest and direct communication. We can prevent toxic emotions from festering.

Our negative experiences can provide us with the incentive going forward to speak up, even when it would be more comfortable not to. The real victory is in not allowing ourselves to become that kind of energy-sapping person who secretly routes against the success of everyone around them.

Further Reading

More tips on handling your passive-aggressive coworkers:

How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Co-Worker 

How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Colleague

Sherie Sanders is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

I think we’ve all dealt with a passive-aggressive co-worker (or several) at some point, because as you point out, it really is a smart way of expressing negativity. Using humor is definitely my favorite tactic to combat one-off comments such as your example above (and I definitely got a laugh from your quip back at her 🙂 ). I try to always keep it positive with people that speak and act in negative ways, and this is a great way to keep yourself covered as you noted. Awesome piece; thank you for posting, Sherie!

Gabrielle Wonnell

My mentor gave me the best advice ever. “Remember you don’t have to go him with them at night.” Thank you for this post!