Confronting Your Passive-Aggressive Co-Workers

Want to know the most commonly complained-about co-worker? It’s not the one who eats tuna noodle casserole everyday. It has nothing to do with personal phone calls. It’s not even the jerk who takes credit for everyone else’s work. Every time I mention that I write about office relationships, there’s a single type of co-worker that people bring up first. “So just how do you deal with Mr. or Mrs. Passive-Aggressive?”

Passive-aggressive has gotten to be a bit overused as of late. It’s a like a buzz word that just won’t got away. Plenty of people suspect everyone they don’t like of being passive-aggressive, and sliding little bits of nastiness into the workplace without actually discussing their problems. Your boss dismissed your idea during the weekly sales meeting? It was their way of passive-aggressively getting back at you for showing up late last week. Or ya know, they just didn’t like your idea.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this infuriating personality trait isn’t a major issue. I definitely agree that it can ruin an office environment! But I think we need to be careful what we label as passive-aggressive. The most obvious problems in the office arise when co-workers refuse to confront one another about their problems. The entire idea behind “passive-aggressive” is that you’re trying to find a way to express your displeasure without actually saying something mean or sounding angry. It’s a back-handed way to deal with your problems. And that’s also why it’s the most difficult office issue to solve.

Co-workers who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior normally have a reason that they refuse to speak their mind about their problems in the first place. Whether it’s a feeling of insecurity or a fear of confrontation, this reaction shows that your co-worker or angry or frustrated and just having a hard time communicating that fact. Often, the more openly hostile you are to a passive-aggressive co-worker, the more threatened they’ll feel. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that if an insecure person feels even more threatened, you’ll have to start dealing with even more passive-aggressive behavior.

So how do you stop the cycle? How do you come to terms with someone who wants to ignore any and all problems? Well it’s not easy. And it’s not always successful. But here are the best tips I’ve come up with.

  • Model the behavior you’re looking for. You want openness and communication when there’s a problem. So you’re going to have to be the first person to take that step. When you have a problem, ask your co-worker if you can both work together to find a solution. Pull out the old-school conflict resolution lessons you had in school. Instead of getting accusatory, explain why you’re frustrated and what you would like this person to do to help you.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Truly passive-aggressive people have really dug in and committed to this habit. You will probably get more than a couple, “I’m fine”s or “Whatever”s. Don’t harp on the issues, but continue to speak up when you have a problem. After a while, they’re going to see that you want to talk about problems instead of ignoring them.
  • Ignore the snark. Often, those back-handed remarks of a passive-aggressive co-worker can get offensive. Even worse if you know that the person is discussing matters behind your back.  As hard as it is, try to remain level-headed. Getting worked up about false compliments or someone’s refusal to take responsibility isn’t going to help your case. It’s just going to make someone less-likely to talk to you in the future. You need to look down on the pettiness for exactly what it is, a coping mechanism of someone who needs a little more confidence.
  • Let logic come to your rescue. Being responsible and honest is obviously the most professional and mature choice here. For those who choose to make passive-aggressive comments or undermine your decisions, they’re letting their fear get in the way. Rational thinking is on your side as long as you continue to confront the situation head on. Even better, your boss will notice that you’re trying to proactive in solving the problem.
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