Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace

Updated on January 7, 2018
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual counselor, hypnotherapist, and a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders.

Passive-aggressive behavior is defined as "appearing to comply or act appropriately, but actually behaving negatively and passively resisting." It can be a symptom of several different mental disorders and types of personality problems, or it can simply be a troublesome trait that somebody has. While passive-aggressive behavior can occur in any type of situation or relationship, it is extremely common in the workplace. This is probably because most expressions of anger are frowned upon in the workplace.

For example, if someone's boss assigns them a task they don't want to complete, they may not feel comfortable saying so. Instead, they may express their anger in more subtle ways. So a person whose boss asks them to fetch coffee may resent that but be unable to express this for fear of losing their job or of confronting authority. They may instead express their resentment by purposely making their boss's coffee incorrectly. This is a "safe" way of venting their feelings that will probably not result in any adverse consequences. A boss may fire you for refusing to complete a task, but probably won't fire you for making their coffee wrong. The question is, why do passive-aggressive people feel the need to act on these feelings at all?

People who engage in passive-aggressive behavior feel that, for whatever reason, they cannot vent their anger or negative feelings assertively. And make no mistake about it, passive-aggressive behavior is aggression. In the workplace, most people probably would agree that you usually cannot express your feelings freely. You can't curse out co-workers or tell your boss to shove it if you are having a bad day. It's not the time nor the place for that kind of expression. However, people who don't feel they can express their negative feelings at all may engage in passive-aggressive types of behavior because they are either unfamiliar with or unable to communicate how they feel in an appropriate manner. They may feel unreasonably angry about a situation because they have other problems, or be unable to deal with their emotions properly. Passive-aggressive behavior is actually one of the red flags that there is a narcissist in your workplace. Not all passive-aggressive people are pathological narcissists, but many narcissists exhibit passive-aggressive behavior, especially in the workplace where more overt and assertive forms of aggression will not be tolerated.

The problem is with how passive-aggressive individuals handle things, especially their emotions. Let's say you are being given too much to do by your boss. Lots of people are overworked. Most people will stand up for themselves in this situation. They will say something and communicate these feelings in the appropriate manner at the appropriate time and place to the right people.

A passive-aggressive person may purposely tank the project they are assigned to, or whatever the case may be. This is their way of venting their anger at being asked to do too much. Instead of simply telling their boss that they feel overworked, or that they feel unfair demands are being made of their time and dealing with the situation that way, they react emotionally. They may feel there is no way to resolve their feelings other than to act on them. They may not feel that they can express themselves correctly in order to be heard, or they may feel that their boss will not listen to them anyway so there is no point.

There is often a large component of learned helplessness involved with passive aggressive behavior; the idea that "Even if I try to do something about this, I will fail so why bother?" This type of imposed helplessness actually often makes people angrier and more frustrated, and it becomes a vicious cycle. In the case of more malicious and toxic types of people - such as narcissistic people - they may engage in passive-aggressive behavior simply to cause problems and be difficult because they are resentful of being asked to do something in the first place.

Whatever the reason - and there can be many reasons for passive-aggressive behavior, from the understandable to the flat-out malignant - this type of behavior is inappropriate in the workplace. Passive-aggressive people often employ manipulative tactics to get out of work, avoid confrontation or responsibility, express resentment or to establish control over the situation such as chronic lateness, missing deadlines, agreeing to things they have no intention of doing, sabotage, constant complaining - especially about being underappreciated, undermining or subtly insulting others, gossiping and spreading lies, procrastination, obstructionism - which is deliberately delaying or getting in the way of progress, intentional inefficiency - which is pretending they don't know how to do something, and much more.

They are often catty and sarcastic as well. A passive-aggressive person might make comments like, "Oh, I love your outfit! That was such a great style - when it was in, I mean." Or, "Oh wow, you graduated from such and such college? That's awesome! I was going to go there, too, if a real school hadn't accepted me." These are called backhanded compliments and the intention is to insult or embarrass the person they are speaking to, usually to create a feeling of superiority for themselves. The more toxic types of passive-aggressive people often come across as bitter or resentful, especially when asked to do things. They can be very stubborn and hostile, full of blame for other people and excuses for themselves. If they are called out for their passive-aggressive behavior, they will often deny they are doing anything intentionally at all, and worse, they will often claim that you are victimizing them by accusing them of doing something wrong. Since their behavior is so subtle, they may even be believed.

For example, consider this situation, involving a man who worked in a waste water treatment plant. It was a county job, and those can be very difficult to lose. This person showed up late, no-call/no-showed, was not dressed appropriately ever, claimed he could not follow even simple instructions, claimed to be unable to take instructions or directions from his superiors because he felt threatened by them, slept on the job, lied about his co-workers, claimed he was unable to understand how to operate the machinery he was hired to operate, repeatedly talked about inappropriate subjects, even claimed he was mentally disabled and was going to sue if they fired him and generally made life unbearable for his co-workers for almost 10 years.

Because this behavior is so hard to prove, even though everyone on the crew hated him, complained about him continuously and even though he was written up repeatedly, the county felt they could not fire him. He was written up for insubordination, for example, but he claimed he would have done what he was told if he'd understood how to do it. This is called intentional incompetence. Other times, he claimed he was never told.

So, they arranged mediation between this man and his supervisors. They talked with him. They held his hand. They listened when he said he felt ganged up on and victimized by his co-workers. They assigned people specifically to watch over him and help him with his job - people he of course got to do his job for him most of the time by claiming he could not understand how to do anything. The county made allowances for him because he claimed he felt threatened and intimidated and didn't understand. He agreed to everything everyone said to do, and then just didn't do it. Over and over and over - for years. But because he was not being combative, wasn't overtly aggressive and because he claimed that he really wanted to do right, they kept him on. And the entire time, he was making his co-workers miserable while doing almost no work, yet being paid a very nice salary.

Now this person was actually a narcissist, but the story itself is a study of passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace, and how unfair and abusive it can be to the people around it. This man was eventually fired when he was called upon to prove he was disabled and could not. He was then sent to a doctor and the doctor reported that he had no disability whatsoever. Which of course, the guys on his crew already knew.

Dealing with passive-aggressive people in the workplace can be extremely frustrating - especially if the passive-aggressive person is narcissistic or has an otherwise-toxic personality. It's one of the most frustrating situations there is, in fact. In a personal situation, you can walk away. At work, this can be much more difficult, especially in some situations or areas of the world where there may not be very many other places to work, if there are any at all. Because the behavior is so subtle and has such built-in deniability, victims may be told they are being oversensitive or paranoid. They may be told that they are the ones with the problem. As we see with our example about the waste water treatment plant, it can be very difficult to prove that someone is doing these kinds of things on purpose, which makes it hard to complain or get anything done about it.

This type of behavior is very subtle, which makes it hard for people it is not affecting to detect. You can't prove someone really didn't forget 15 times to do something. You can't prove someone deliberately screwed the numbers so your project would be wrong. You can't prove someone really does know how to do this thing they are claiming not to understand. What you can do is report a pattern. If there is a pattern of their behavior that you can prove to your supervisors, do so. Gather evidence and present it. If they are the type to make nasty remarks and have a rotten attitude, ignore it. Like most toxic people, if they cannot get a rise out of you by provoking you, a lot of times they will stop trying.

Remember: the correct response is no response. If this person is near you and is constantly saying things or sabotaging your work, ask to be moved. Request that you not work on things with them. If you are asked why, tell the truth: you find them negative and passive-aggressive and you cannot get any work done when they are involved. Or that when you work with them, you find you do most of the work alone, or whatever the truth is. Be matter of fact and be brief: "This person is impacting my work performance and I value my job. I am not comfortable with this situation and I would prefer not to work with this person." If your supervisor refuses to listen to you, you can either go over their head until someone does or you can possibly look for work elsewhere. And remember: As with all toxic people, no contact when you can, and no reaction when you can't.

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