Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace

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Instructor: Quentin Shires

Quentin has taught psychology and other social science classes at the university level and is considered a doctoral colleague at Capella University.

Learn about the different kinds of passive-aggressive behavior and identify how they can negatively affect your workplace. Learn how to overcome passive-aggressive situations and take a quiz to see if this behavior is entwined in your place of employment.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Work

Passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility from one person to another, oftentimes creating a disconnect between what someone says versus what they do. Think about times in your life when you have seen this disconnect between words and behavior, especially in the workplace. Perhaps a work colleague offers to help you with a project and never comes through, or a coworker talks about another employee behind their back. Whatever the case, passive-aggressive behavior occurs frequently in the workplace and is an expression that we have to learn to deal with appropriately.

Because passive-aggressive behavior can be difficult to define, let's look at this from a psychological viewpoint. As an unhealthy communication pattern, it is essential to understand how passive-aggressive behavior emerges in the workplace. When identifying potential situations of this power struggle, look for situations that can include behavior such as using sarcasm or the silent treatment, being overly critical, sabotaging projects, being late, and not completing workplace duties as requested. More times than not, these behaviors indicate passive-aggressive behavior.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior & Communication

Many experts agree that passive-aggressive behavior occurs in the workplace due to feelings of an inability to communicate effectively, alongside hidden anger. Although many people have experienced or participated in such behavior, it is important to know that it is commonplace and easy to identify. Because communication in the workplace is considered a two-way street, it is important to determine if you are actively engaging in this behavior on your end and responding in unhealthy ways to the passive-aggressive coworker.

Watch your language.

Because passive-aggressive behavior derives from words that are not said versus behavior that is experienced, it is important for you to examine your communication patterns with your coworkers. A good example of this is to ensure that you are using 'I' statements, strengthening and demonstrating your responsibility in your words and your actions. Essentially, ensure that your own words match your behaviors.

Focus on what the person says, and not the way it was delivered.

Because passive-aggressive behavior is a disconnect between words and actions, it is important to ensure that you focus on the words that your coworker is using and not the behavior. A good example of this is if a coworker has stated that they will help you with a project and has not followed through. Simply ensure that the focal point of your communication is of that person stating that they will help you, not the fact that they didn't follow through. This helps ensure that you address the problem that is being experienced, keeping the passive-aggressive behavior out of the situation.

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