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Managing passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace (video)

Posted by Simon Thiessen on 09-Oct-2015 09:00:00


What’s your idea of a nightmare employee? 

I can think of many different kinds, but right towards the top of that list is the person who behaves in a consistent passive-aggressive manner.

My name is Simon Thiessen, I’m the CEO of the Real Learning Experience. In this video I plan to share with you some tips on dealing with people who behave in a passive aggressive way.

Managing passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace (transcript)

One of the big issues with passive aggressive behaviour is the way it plays out. It’s actually easier to deal with aggressive rather than passive aggressive behaviour.

If you’ve got someone in your team who tends to be aggressive, who tends to be confrontational, too direct, who says things they shouldn’t, at least it’s an honest behaviour.

At least you know what you’re dealing with. That person tells you exactly what they think. They tell you when they disagree with you. They tell you when they don’t like something.

They tell you when they don’t want to follow through on a task you’ve asked them to do. At least you can deal with that. While their behaviour may sometimes be too abrupt, too confrontational, at least it’s transparent.

The passive team member

If you happen to have someone in your team who tends to be more passive, this can be more challenging but once again, it’s an honest behaviour.

You may have trouble getting them to tell you exactly what they’re thinking, but you do know that if they don’t disagree with you in a meeting, they won’t then go and undermine the plans, the decisions in their everyday work life.

passive_aggressive_behaviour_creates_frustrationCombing the worst of passive and aggressive behaviour

Passive aggressive behaviour tends to combine the worst of aggressive and passive behaviours. They won’t tell you exactly what they’re thinking, but they’ll also go out there and undermine decisions, undermine plans, with things that are aggressive but never aggressive enough to cause a confrontation.

Stop being so picky!

As a manager, this is really challenging. Anytime you raise an issue with them, they can make you seem petty or trivial. It’s really easy for them to respond with “Oh well, if you’re going to nit-pick, I’m just going to do my job and go home. I’ll just do what I have to. I’ll just work 9 to 5.”

It’s really easy for them to make you look like you’re being pedantic by even raising this issue.

The shadowy statement

To be really frank, passive aggressive behaviour is dishonest. It makes a statement without having the courage to actually come out and make that statement.

When you call attention to the statement that’s been made, they deny it.

Don’t get caught up in trivialities

So the key for a manager in dealing with passive aggressive behaviour is to refuse to get caught up on the trivialities, to refuse to get into an argument, a debate about each of these separate issues.

That’s an argument you’ll never win and that’s an argument you shouldn’t be having.

Focus on the pattern of behaviour

Instead, focus on the big picture. Focus on the pattern of passive aggressive behaviour and the issues that’s causing, either with team moral, team performance or other aspects in the workplace.

When you focus at that level, on the pattern of behaviour it’s harder for them to brush it away as a triviality; it’s harder for them to suggest that you’re being petty by even raising this.

One manager’s experience

I worked with an organisation recently and coached one of their managers to deal with a team member who was doing a lot of passive aggressive behaviour.


When he sat with this person, they did exactly what we predicted. They brushed it off as trivial; they called him petty for even raising it.

Based on our coaching, he said to them: “This is not about each of those issues. I agree with you. Each of those issues are relatively minor. Each of those issues in isolation wouldn’t in fact be a problem. However, the overall pattern of behavior we’re seeing is a serious problem. The overall pattern of behavior we’re seeing is causing workplace issues that we need to address.”

Stick to good principles around performance management

As with every feedback discussion, the discussion about passive aggressive behaviour needs to have a positive intent and be forward focused. It’s really important to tell this person what you want them to do and how you support them in getting there.

The frustration that drives passive aggressive responses

Remember! At the heart of passive aggressive behaviour is often frustration. That frustration is often experienced by a person with themselves, because they don’t have the courage to speak about something that obviously bothers them.

You should also remember that that frustration may be due to a sense of disempowerment.

Is it possible that your leadership style or something else in the organisational climate leads this person to feel they can’t express what they’re really thinking?

If that does exist, then it’s going to result in the passive aggressive behaviour that you’re seeing. They may feel it’s the only way they can express themselves.

No silver bullets

If you have someone in your team behaving in a passive aggressive way, I don’t for a minute think that this video will be a silver bullet.

However, if you apply the principles we’ve talked about, in particular if you focus on the big picture, the pattern of passive aggressive behaviour instead of individual issues, I’m confident that you’ll make some progress.

As always, if you enjoy these videos, if they have value, if they help you become a better leader please subscribe to receive updates every time we release a new video, a new article or a new free resource.

Thank you again for watching.

Leadership posters


Editor's note: This blog was originally published in December 2014 and has been revamped and updated for comprehensiveness and better readability. 


photo credit: Michelle Souliere via photopin cc photo credit: Brett Jordan via photopin cc photo credit: Okko Pyykkö via photopin cc

Topics: Leadership