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Shut down a passive aggressive coworker with these 5 steps

a woman with long curly hair appears to be a passive aggressive coworker

The snarky tone of voice, the backbiting, the avoidance—dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker can be exhausting. Not only are the signs of their displeasure subtle, but it’s also nearly impossible to get them to admit that something is wrong.

So what should you do if you think you’ve got a passive-aggressive coworker on your hands? First, take a deep breath. Then, dive into the tips and tricks below to find some relief!

Table of contents

Signs of a passive-aggressive coworker

How can you be sure you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker and not just misinterpreting the signs? Well, you can never be sure of how someone feels unless you ask them, but here are some tell-tale signs of passive aggression that can clue you in.

  • They act nice to you, but they’re saying bad things about you behind your back.
  • They tell you one thing with their words, but their tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures tell a different story.
  • They constantly block your efforts or covertly undermine your work.
  • They deny that anything is wrong when you confront them about it.

How to deal with a passive-aggressive coworker while maintaining your professionalism

Okay, so you’re pretty sure you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker. In that case, we’ve got some tips that can help you ameliorate, and hopefully, resolve the situation.

1. Understand why people act passive aggressively.

People who act passive aggressively do so because, for whatever reason, they are not comfortable expressing how they feel in a direct way. For them, it is easier to hint at how they feel, rather than be upfront about it. 

According to WebMD:

“People who rely on passive aggression rather than direct communication to show these emotions often grew up in a family where that behavior was common. It might not have felt safe for them to directly express their feelings as a child. But people can also pick up this behavior as adults. They may act this way because it helps them get what they want. They may do it to avoid confrontation.”

Pay attention to those last two lines, which reveal two different possible motivations of your passive-aggressive coworker:

  • They’re trying to manipulate you to get what they want, which shows malintent and that they know exactly what they’re doing.
  • Or they simply disdain confrontation, which shows they might have the good (though misguided) intention of simply getting along with everyone. As WebMD says, “Many people don't realize that they're being passive-aggressive. The behavior may feel ‘normal’ to them. Or they might think it's the best way to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to prevent something bad from happening, like losing their job.”

In the latter case, their passive-aggressive behavior might be the result of a workplace that doesn’t feel psychologically safe. Alternatively, it might be due to low employee engagement. In fact, Gallup, an analytics company that measures employee engagement, has a label for this type of person: “actively disengaged.”

“Actively disengaged employees are more or less out to damage their company,” says Gallup. Yikes!

And the passive aggression you’re sensing might not be limited to that one coworker; it might be a company-wide problem. In a global survey conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton, over a quarter of the 30,000 respondents indicated that they work in a passive-aggressive organization.

So what emotion is behind the passive aggression? As marriage and family therapist Andrea Brandt writes for Psychology Today, “It is a form of anger. Your passive-aggressive mother, co-worker, and/or boss are deeply angry people. They’re just as angry as a person who screams or throws things, but they have a different way of showing it.”

2. Don’t feed into it.

Whatever you do, try to remain calm (easier said than done, we know!). Returning passive-aggressive behavior with more passive aggression or even direct aggression may feed it and make it worse.

If your coworker is being passive aggressive as a means to get what they want, then giving in to their hints will reward that behavior. They’ll learn that their passive aggression is an effective tool to achieve their goals.

Even if they’re doing it because they don’t want to cause conflict, they are indirectly doing just that. And by allowing the behavior to continue, nothing will ever change. That brings us to our next step.

3. Model assertiveness.

So what can you do to find out what’s going on with your passive-aggressive coworker? Model the appropriate behavior: assertiveness. By doing this, your coworker will see that it is both safe and effective to express their feelings directly.

Some tips for doing this:

  • Speak to them privately. No one likes to be called out in front of people. Your coworker will feel more at ease in a one-on-one setting.
  • Give concrete examples of the behavior you’ve witnessed in them, and tell them how you interpreted it. Leave out any accusatory language, and do not label them or their behavior as “passive aggressive.” That term will only put them on the defensive.
  • Ask them direct questions. Give them an opportunity to explain their behavior and tell you what they need from you.

Example: “Hey, I’ve noticed recently that you’ve been late to three meetings about this new project, and when Carol brought up some ideas for it during lunch, you left the table without finishing your meal. I could be wrong, but to me, it feels like you don’t think this project is a good idea; I know it wasn’t the one you voted for. I might be misreading this, which is why I wanted to check in with you directly. I value your opinion, and I need to hear from you. Do you have an issue with this project?”

It’s possible your coworker will deny something’s wrong at first. Give them time. If they say you’re misinterpreting the situation, then try pointing out one concrete example again and asking, “So what did that mean?”

End the conversation by welcoming their direct expression of their true feelings. You can say something like, “I’m really glad we were able to have an open conversation about this. It helps me so much. I want you to know that my door is always open. If you ever have feedback—even if it’s negative—please tell me. We’re a team, and your opinion matters to me.”

4. Enforce consequences if the behavior doesn’t stop.

Eventually, your coworker should come around, or at least, they should stop the passive-aggressive behavior. If it continues, however, it’s time to take a harsher approach and let them know that their behavior is unacceptable. You can have another direct conversation with them about the actions you’ve noticed, how they made you feel and what will happen if they continue.

If they show no improvement, it’s wise to distance yourself from this passive-aggressive coworker. If possible, avoid working on projects with them, and don’t associate with them outside of the office. Being around them will probably only make your blood boil, which will cause you unnecessary stress.

If this coworker continues undermining your work, it may be time to bring a supervisor or manager into this to enact disciplinary measures as necessary. They will know how best to manage difficult employees, and at that point, it’s not your responsibility to fix anything.

5. Take care of yourself.

As mentioned before, dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker can drain you—especially if they’re actively trying to get you to break. That’s why, after you’ve distanced yourself from them as much as possible, it’s important to take care of your mental health.

  • Talk to a friend who is removed from the situation. Avoid venting to coworkers, as this can easily turn into office gossip, making things worse. Try talking to your partner or a trusted friend who doesn’t know the coworker and isn’t connected to your company.
  • Talk to a therapist. A therapist will be a neutral, non-judgmental resource who has expertise in dealing with passive-aggressive people. Find out if you can get free counseling through your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
  • De-stress after work. Once you’re off the clock, do something you love. Go for a run around the lake, make your favorite dish, play with your dog or cozy up to a good book. Avoid bringing the toxicity of that passive-aggressive coworker into your home by letting them mess with your mind after work.

Dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker is never easy, but you can do it!

If you’re caught in the unpleasant experience of dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker, following these tips should help. Remember, if your coworker doesn’t improve despite your best efforts, it says much more about them than it does about you. Beneath their behavior is a lot of anger and bad habits. It’s not your job to fix them. It might be wise to keep your distance and focus your energy on your work.

Want to figure out what motivates your coworkers? Have them take our free F4S assessment to gain some insights into what makes them tick. You might discover that what you thought was passive-aggressive behavior is simply a difference in communication style.

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