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6 Secrets to Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Colleagues

We’re all guilty of occasionally acting in passive-aggressive ways at work. We may use humor to deflect criticism, half-heartedly say yes when we mean no or signal disinterest by waiting days before replying to an email.

Identifying passive aggressive people usually isn’t hard. They’re the colleagues whose snide comments make your blood boil. Their penchant to shift blame or avoid picking up their share of the workload is crazy-making. Sarcasm, the silent treatment and procrastination are a few of the many classic signs of passive-aggressive behavior.

This type of conflict-avoidance can become an issue, however, when it becomes chronic and pervasive. Passive aggressive behavior — whether malicious or unintentional or — contributes to a toxic environment. No one is immune to the effects of sugar-coated hostility at the office. Left unchecked it can erode employee morale and contribute to burn out–even if you otherwise enjoy the work you do.

Shutting down passive-aggressive patterns in the workplace can be tricky. It takes time and patience. But learning to short circuit this unproductive cycle can save you from unending power struggles that leave you feeling miserable. More importantly, you can do your part to stop the spread of negative feelings throughout the office.

Because the only thing worse than dealing with a passive-aggressive person is becoming one yourself.

See Beyond the Surface

When a colleague cops a passive-aggressive attitude, determine how this behavior has benefited them in the past.

Look for the hidden positive outcome motivating the person to act passive-aggressively. What do they achieve by not expressing themselves directly? They may get to feel superior by putting others down. Or perhaps they gossip to be part of the “in crowd” at the office.

Consider ways you may be enabling the passive aggressive dynamic to stay in place as well: backhanded compliments, procrastinating on deliverables, saying “it’s fine” when it’s not.

Remove the Reward

While you may be irked by your colleague’s criticisms or lack of follow-through, refuse to mirror their emotional tone. Don’t nag or rescue them. Avoid firing back with comments like “Why would you do that?” or “What do you really mean?”

Tit for tat gets you nowhere. Reacting to provocations only escalates conflict and gives the passive aggressive person the reward they want, keeping the bad behavior in place.

Feel It All — and Rise Above

You have the right to be treated with respect in the workplace (which is an expectation to never compromise on). You also have a responsibility to protect your mental and emotional well-being from passive aggressive energy vampires. That might mean working from home to limit contact, popping on headphones while you work or taking a brisk walk around the block to clear your mind.

Trying to not be upset doesn’t make the problem go away. If anything, it often makes it worse. It’s perfectly reasonably to be frustrated by passive-aggressive behavior, but process your emotions outside of your interaction with the person.

Take Ego Out of Communication

If your job requires collaboration with passive aggressive colleagues, you may need to modify your communication ever so slightly in order to make things work.

When in direct conversation, avoid using words like “you” or “your” when directed at the passive aggressive person. Replace it with statements that begin with “we” to depersonalize issues (We have some challenges…) or “when” (When there’s miscommunication on the team…)

Mastering a few simple principles of assertiveness can help defuse resistance and bolster cooperation.

Set Limits and Follow Through

When you start changing the way you communicate, there may be backlash from colleagues. Micro-aggressions may intensify when you disrupt the normal, elusive way of doing things.

Stay consistent in your assertive communication and work to establish clear standards and expectations that hold people accountable. Consequences — when designed effectively — are the most powerful way to snub out passive aggressive behavior.

For example, if you want to curb tardiness, begin meetings on time regardless of who runs late. If you say you’ll start without them, enforce it.

Adopt an Open-Door Policy

Passive-aggressive people struggle to express themselves openly at work, but you can influence positive change welcoming feedback and dialogue.

Start by offering different ways colleagues can get in touch beyond face-to-face communication. Mention that your inbox is always open to them or that you’re available of Slack or Skype throughout the day if something comes up.

Encouraging two-way communication helps head off passive aggressive patterns before they start. By doing so, you help create a psychologically safe workplace where healthy, constructive problem-solving can thrive.

6 Secrets to Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Colleagues

Melody Wilding, LMSW

Melody Wilding, LMSW is a performance coach, licensed social worker, and has a Masters from Columbia. She helps established and rising managers and executives advance in their careers. Her clients work at companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP, and Deloitte. She also helps entrepreneurs take bold steps to grow their businesses. Melody has helped over 10,000 smart, self-aware people like you. Her coaching gives you actionable strategies to reach your goals. You get concrete steps to overcome the complex struggles of success. Melody loves arming ambitious people with tools and tactics to boost their confidence. She can teach you skills for assertiveness and influence. Her specialties include better managing your emotions at work. Melody also teaches Human Behavior at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. She writes about psychology and careers for Inc., Forbes, Fast Company, and more. Click here and grab the FREE COURSE to go from insecure to unstoppable confidence 5 DAYS TO FREEDOM FROM SELF-DOUBT..

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APA Reference
Wilding, M. (2018). 6 Secrets to Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Colleagues. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 8 Feb 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.