What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson explores passive-aggressive behavior by providing scenarios and levels of action. A definition of passive aggressive behavior is then developed using the scenarios and levels of the behavior.

Three Different Scenarios

Jim seemed opposed to nothing, but as people got to know him better they started to realize he was really opposed to almost any communication from his supervisor. He was able to hide his decision to be contrary by being really upbeat whenever a new project started. The problem (those who worked with him started to realize) was that when the real work started, he often shirked his responsibility.

The same couldn't be said for Posey. She wasn't afraid of work, but she feels that the bosses have made too many promises they didn't keep. She is not compliant with the work schedule, showing up late much of the time, and she seems to do things at her own pace rather than finishing in a timely manner.

On the other hand, Frank acted like being asked to work was an insult. He would always do the work asked, but he completed tasks slowly, always grumbling and trying to get others to agree with him that the bosses were being unfair. People started to avoid him, and that fueled Frank's anger even more.

All three of the above scenarios are examples of passive-aggressive behavior. Since it is obviously a term that encompasses a lot of different behavior types, it is necessary to define exactly what passive-aggressive behavior is.

Defining Passive-Aggressive Behavior

A concise definition is difficult because the term 'passive-aggressive behavior' encompasses a number of actions and inactions. A good place to start is a trusted source of clarification, the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, which defines passive aggressive as 'being, marked by, or displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (As through procrastination and stubbornness)'. So an individual can actually be passive aggressive (as in someone with Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder), or just use such behavior when they deem that the situation calls for it. The definition also lists three ways people express passive-aggressiveness - negative feelings, resentment, aggression - but they are expressed in such a way that they are non-threatening. This is why it is difficult much of the time to recognize this type of behavior. This is true even for the individual who is being passive-aggressive. They may not even realize what they are doing.

Understanding How the Behavior is Exhibited

Some researchers have suggested that passive-aggressive behavior can be described in levels from unconscious to pathological ('extreme, excessive or markedly abnormal' behavior). Passive-aggressiveness can be anything from noncompliance to self-sabotage.

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