ADDRESSING PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOUR IN THE WORKPLACE
By Liane Davey, Ph.D.
We all know one: a colleague who seethes with anger
but never voices their concerns directly. They think
their silence makes them innocent; but they are
wrong. Passive-aggressive behaviour is extremely
costly. It slows down decisions and stalls implementation leading
to lost productivity. But it’s not just bad for business, it’s bad
for people. Passive-aggressive behaviour erodes trust and prolongs
conflict and, as a result, the workplace suffers.
WHAT IS PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOUR?
Passive-aggressive behaviour is the indirect expression of hostility.
It can take the form of a pervasive negative attitude such as
resentment, or sullenness. It can also fuel covert resistance such as
procrastination, stubbornness, sarcasm or gossip. Mental health
professionals believe that passive-aggressive behaviour has its
roots in our early personal experiences. Children raised in situations
where conflict was unsafe (perhaps because of overly strict
or abusive parents) learn to stifle their dissent. In the workplace,
those who have experienced negative consequences of disagreeing
(such as being ostracized, disciplined or even terminated) may
similarly learn not to express conflict directly. Regardless of the
health & wellness
origins, passive-aggressiveness stems from an aversion to direct
Unfortunately, those who express conflict passively perpetuate
a vicious cycle. Conflict that isn’t expressed tends to fester, leading
to ongoing distress with little hope of resolution. That hostility
creates difficulties for those around the passive-aggressive person,
often leading to retaliation either directly (by calling out the bad
behaviour) or indirectly (by undermining or shunning the person).
It is an unhealthy formula for all involved.
HOW DO I RESPOND?
First, remember that passive-aggressive behaviour is a response to
situations where conflict wasn’t safe. To counteract this, you need
to make it easier for the person to express their frustrations constructively.
One way to do this is to solicit dissenting points of
view. For example, “I’m worried I’m missing the contrary perspective.
What might someone react to in this plan?” By making it feel
like they are helping you by disagreeing, you’re making it a little
easier to voice their disagreement.
While encouraging disagreement, you also need to provide feedback
about the impact of the passive-aggressive behaviour. Again,
HRPATODAY.CA ❚ SEPTEMBER 2015 ❚ 37