Gabe was a aspiring executive with a nonprofit in New York City. Smart, compassionate, and motivated, he had close relationships with his donors and the community that his organization served.
But lately, Gabe was drained from the difficult dynamic that was going on around him. He was fed up with chasing coworkers for information they had promised him weeks ago. Tired of hearing excuses after excuses, he grew tired of complaining and water-cooler gossip.
No job is perfect, but it is difficult to perform and feel your best when dysfunctional conditions occur around you. Condescending comments, belittles, and sarcasm - all hallmarks of passive-aggressive behavior - contribute to an environment of rudeness, according to experts. Unchecked, latent disdain can undermine morale and contribute to burnout, even if you otherwise enjoy your job.
After going through burnout myself, I could clearly see red flags signaling that Gabe had taken an unhealthy path. His resentment turned into fear. He feared going to work every day.
When Gabe told me this and told me he was also thinking of giving up his lifelong mission to pursue the humanitarian work he loved so much, I knew it was time to step in as his coach and work with Gabe to bring the situation under control.
Recognize passive-aggressive behavior
Identifying passive-aggressive people can be difficult precisely because they don't express themselves clearly. Her words do not match her actions.
For example, your teammate may agree to help you with a task and then complain about how crazy busy and overwhelmed by all the responsibility that lies on their plate. You feel bad, confused about why they said yes in the first place. Sound familiar?
Per Definition, passive-aggressive people Avoid conflict. Unfortunately, their conflict avoidance strategies lead to conflict, especially in the workplace. You express negative feelings through indirect actions such as:
- The silent treatment
- Postponing or leaving tasks unfinished
- A cynical attitude or an air of superiority
- Disguised insults and non-compliments
- Make excuses
- Never give a straight answer
- Rejection of other points of view and feedback
- Say they feel underrated
Because passive aggressive behavior can manifest itself in so many different ways, it is not always easy or straightforward to disarm. In Gabe's case, he had to expose things about himself first before turning to his colleagues.
Although dealing with difficult people takes time and patience, it is worth saving your well-being and self-esteem. Learning to short out unproductive relationship cycles can save you from endless power struggles that leave you unhappy.
This will help protect yourself from the negative effects of passive aggressive behavior and do your part in stopping the spread of rudeness.
Four steps to overcome passive aggressive people in your life
1. Get control of your emotions
Difficult coworkers can hijack your emotions, causing you to act and think irrationally or to disagree with your values. This isn't exactly a healthy situation to be successful in.
Hard as it may be, do your best to depersonalize the passive-aggressive person's actions. When you're feeling triggered, there are a few techniques you can use to control your response:
- To use Box breathe to ease the body's stress response and bring your prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for self-control) back online. For box breathing, you breathe in slowly four times, hold your breath four times, exhale slowly another four times, and then hold your breath four times. Then you repeat.
- Avoid getting into a negative downward spiral with that CONSCIOUS mindfulness exercise . This can feel like a bit of a long exercise that takes more than 10 minutes. But if you have a coworker who is constantly frustrating you, this exercise is well worth your time. The core of the exercise is to observe and accept your feelings. It works a bit like a librarian - if you can catalog your feelings, then you can put them down and move on to more rational thoughts.
- Express your thoughts and feelings by, for example, writing in a journal, talking to a trusted friend, or by moving. Research also shows simply label What you feel can have powerful calming effects. This is also an example of the power to observe and accept your feelings. Many people try to set out on the road to rationality in the hope that they can simply suppress their feelings. Instead, it is almost always faster and healthier to practice techniques for processing these feelings.
2. Empathy and forwarding
When a colleague adopts a passive-aggressive attitude, you will find out how this behavior has benefited him in the past. Look for the hidden positive result that motivates the person to be passive-aggressive. What can you achieve if you don't express yourself directly?
They can feel superior by belittling others. Compensatory strategies like gossiping, complaining, or playing the victim are often used to mask low self-esteem or indirectly deal with anger, resentment, or other uncomfortable emotions.
There is a simple formula that can help you distance yourself from the dynamics while keeping relationships intact:
First empathy. Acknowledge your colleague's reaction and address the deeper, human need beneath the surface that could be love and belonging. The Real the reason they clap is because they want to feel heard and validated.
Then use the redirection. Maybe you nudge the person for a solution ' Ugh, it sucks feeling like you're undervalued. You should talk to your boss about this directly. '
Or encourage them to focus on what works, e.g. It sounds like the situation is still bothering you. That sucks. For now, let's talk about how things are going with the new project you're working on. '
This step doesn't magically change passive aggressive behavior, but it does take you out of the role of making it possible by not saying anything.
3. Look at your post
When Gabe took a closer look at what was going on with his team, he found that his philanthropic tendencies contributed to (and sustained) the cycle of passive-aggressive behavior in his office.
By breaking down to solve any problem and staying long to complete projects unfinished by others, he had inadvertently taught his colleagues helplessness. You could continue to neglect deadlines with no consequences. You didn't have to take responsibility because 'Gift will do it.' Gabe's brand of self-sacrificing labor martyrdom is growing in popularity, especially among well-meaning executives who value hard work.
Be honest about how you can add to the unhealthy dynamic. For example, think about the last time you felt upset, hurt, or upset about something your coworker or boss did. How did you react? Did you address the situation quickly and directly? Or have you fallen into passive-aggressive patterns yourself?
Think about how your beliefs and attitudes about power, conflict, and emotional expression shape your behavior at work and in relation to other people. Research questions like:
- What is the first reaction you have when you hear the word 'power'? Is it positive or negative? Which pictures come up?
- Was it forbidden in your family to stand up for yourself? Was it funded?
- When you were younger, was it acceptable to speak up and share your opinion?
- What other key experiences have shaped your attitude towards authority and assertiveness, especially in the workplace?
Thinking about questions like this helped Gabe realize that his hyperfunction actually resulted from a deeper fear of confrontation. Armed with this self-awareness, he became aware of how he could now change his role in maintaining passive-aggressive patterns.
4. Be firm and set boundaries
When you start to change the way you communicate with passive-aggressive people, expect backlash. Microaggression can be aggravated when you interfere with the normal way of doing things.
The assertive messaging formula is a helpful communication tool that can help you assert yourself even if the passive-aggressive person is arguing or making excuses.
The prototypical assertive message uses a format like this:
I feel ______ when you ______. What I want instead is ______.
Here is an example of how Gabe used it to confront a colleague who was chronically late with the results:
- First, describe the facts of the situation and the person's behavior: You have not sent me an email with the files by the agreed date.
- Then state your feelings or perspectives : I am disappointed and stressed because I have to prepare for the customer meeting.
- Describe the broader effects of the behavior: The customer said we look disorganized. We run the risk of losing the account.
- State what you need : You need to create the slides and handouts. In the future, I will ask you to send me all documents at least 24 hours in advance so that we can avoid such a situation in the future.
Your goal is to convey your feelings directly and Make an explicit request about what needs to be changed. Does that always work? No. But it's healthier and more mature than internalizing frustrations.
I know it's not easy to make demands of others - especially when you're angry or upset. Assertiveness does Take the time to master it, but with consistent effort it is a skill you can get better at.
Most people just try to ignore the passive aggressiveness in the workplace, which inevitably backfires. It takes hard work to instead choose skill development to disarm difficult dynamics. It also takes courage to dive deeply and examine what your thoughts and reactions to passive-aggressive behavior are around you. By leaning into the discomfort, you can pave a path to lasting leadership and personal growth.
Melodie Wilding '11SW teaches human behavior at the City University of New York and is a nationally recognized Masters Coach who converts psychological insights into actionable career tips. As a licensed social worker at Columbia, she has helped thousands of professional women and entrepreneurs master their mindsets and emotions to become more successful. Wilding has worked with CEOs and executives who run top startups as well as writers and media personalities. She can help you identify and remove mental and emotional barriers that are holding you back from reaching the next level in your career. Get in touch with Wilding and other members of the Columbia Career Coaches Network.