How to Work with a Passive-Aggressive Coworker
Amy Gallo: OK. I’ve got good news and bad news about passive-aggressive coworkers. First, the bad news: you can’t avoid them. They’re in practically every workplace, and even great colleagues sometimes act passive-aggressively. And guess what? You have probably behaved passive-aggressively at some point, too. I know I have. The good news: your colleague is probably not being a jerk on purpose. And if you can understand a little bit about what motivates them, your relationship will be a lot less painful. I’m going to show you what makes them tick and then share some tips for getting along with them.
We’ve all worked with that person. You know the one. They commit to doing something in a meeting and then never follow through, or that email they promise just never shows up, or maybe they pay you a compliment, which is really just a disguised insult. So they might say, “you have such a relaxed style”, which truly means, I think you’re lazy. They might roll their eyes at you or give you the cold shoulder. But then, when you ask them, “what’s wrong?” They say, “nothing. It’s all in your head.” It is so frustrating.
These are all behaviors that you would consider “passive-aggressive”, but let’s define that term a little more clearly.
Your coworker is behaving passive-aggressively when they’re not forthcoming about what they’re truly thinking and instead use indirect methods to convey their thoughts or feelings. To work harmoniously with them, we need to know why they’re behaving that way.
Gabrielle Adams: Passive-aggressiveness is one of those behaviors that people use when they think that they’re trying to cushion feedback or soften a blow or they don’t want to offend.
Amy Gallo: That’s Gabe Adams, a professor at the University of Virginia, and she studies this exact topic.
Gabrielle Adams: It can also just come from a place of, you know, I don’t want…I don’t want to take the time to get into a conflict with someone or have a confrontation.
Amy Gallo: In addition to avoiding conflict, Gabe says that sometimes colleagues slip into passive-aggressive behavior because it feels like it might be their only option.
Gabrielle Adams: On the communicator’s end, they can think of a whole bunch of situational reasons why they might want to be indirect. For example, they’re relatively powerless in a situation, they don’t feel like they have much of a voice or much of a say in a decision, that they can’t come in strong and hard and direct. And so, as a result, they come across in a way that feels passive-aggressive.
Amy Gallo: So they may not be doing it for harmful reasons, and they may not even realize that they’re being indirect. They may be trying to avoid saying no or being honest about what they’re feeling. Their behavior is often driven by common fears like the fear of rejection or a desire for something like the desire to be perfect.
With all that in mind, here are some tips for dealing with your passive-aggressive coworker.
Tip 1: Avoid calling them “passive-aggressive”.
It’s a loaded phrase. And besides, they probably don’t think of themselves as passive-aggressive. Chances are it’s going to make them angry or more defensive. Instead, try to understand what’s going on with them. Rather than saying, “you’re being a passive-aggressive jerk”, try saying, “I notice that you never responded to my email and you never followed up after that meeting like you said you would. What’s going on?”
And don’t try to label their feelings. Don’t tell them they’re angry or upset. Chances are you’re going to get it wrong anyway. Show genuine concern rather than trying to label their behavior.
Tip 2: Focus on what they’re trying to say.
When they’re being passive-aggressive, they’re actually trying to tell you something. While their message may be wrapped in a snarky comment or a rude email, you want to try to get to the heart of what they’re really trying to say. Away from the situation, take time to think through, what’s the underlying idea? What do they care about? What are they trying to tell me? Do they think that the way I’m running this project isn’t working, or do they disagree about the team’s goals?
Once you have an idea about what they might be thinking, test it out. Respectfully and without judgment, ask what’s going on. You’re basically trying to give them a way to express themselves that’s not indirect and not rude but just straightforward. Don’t think of this as letting your coworker off the hook for their bad behavior. See it as a way to nudge them into more productive interactions.
Tip 3: Don’t take the bait.
I don’t know about you, but most of the passive-aggressive jabs I get from coworkers come via Slack or email or even text message. These are all horrible mediums for any difficult conversation, but especially one with a passive-aggressive coworker. It is so tempting to strike back and say rude things as well. I’ve done it many times, and I’ve always regretted it.
If your coworker makes jabs in writing, keep your responses professional and short. For example, if your coworker writes, “I’m not sure if you saw my last email, period”, you can respond with a simple, “thanks for the reminder.” If they write, “as we discussed earlier”, and then they go on to recap a conversation you both know you had, you can respond with, “I appreciate that we’re still on the same page.”
Model the respectful candor that you wish your colleague would show. The best thing you can do, though, resist the urge to reply in text or email at all. Instead, pick up the phone or have a video call or just walk by their desk. If they can’t hide behind a screen, they’ll have to be more direct with you.
Tip 4: Get support from the team.
It’s easier to get caught up in a never-ending back and forth of, “you’re mad”, “no, I’m not”, when it’s just the two of you. So enlist the help of your teammates. You don’t want to gang up on anyone, but you don’t have to go it alone either. Start by asking others if they’re noticing the same behaviors that you’re noticing. Frame it is an attempt to constructively improve your relationship so it doesn’t come off as gossip or bad-mouthing your coworker. You might ask something like, “how did Sean’s comment land with you?” “How did you interpret that?”
If your teammates confirm that the behavior is counterproductive, you can then decide together how to proceed. For example, it might help to set guidelines for how everyone on your team will interact.
So if, for example, your colleague fails to follow through on what they say they’re going to do, you can agree collectively that everyone has to commit at the end of the meeting verbally to what they promise to do. You might also take notes on who’s agreed to do what and by when so you can circulate those notes to everyone afterwards.
If your colleague later denies that they agreed to do something or fails to follow through, you can rely on the team to hold them accountable. Even the worst offenders are likely to give in to peer pressure and public accountability.
By making it a whole-team policy, it prevents the passive-aggressive coworker from feeling singled out and getting more defensive.
Dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker is tough. Your relationship with this person is unlikely to change overnight. Remember, don’t take it personally. You may feel targeted, but chances are they treat others similarly, and it’s probably more about them than it is about you.
Here are the key points to remember: Avoid the label. It doesn’t help, and they probably don’t recognize their behavior as passive-aggressive. Instead, ask why they may be acting the way they are. Focus on what they’re trying to say rather than their behavior. Test it out by asking them if you correctly understand their thinking. Don’t take the bait by responding to snarky emails or texts. Model respectful candor and have a phone, video, or in-person chat instead. Get support from the team. You don’t need to deal with a passive-aggressive colleague alone. Positive peer pressure can go a long way.
All of the tips I’ve just shared come from my book “Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone, Even Difficult People”, which we’ll link in the description below. If you have an idea about how to best work with a passive-aggressive colleague or a topic that you’d like us to cover in an upcoming HBR video, let us know in the comments below. Thanks for watching.