There is a lot of talk about damaging behaviors in the workplace. Much of these discussions focus on overt behaviors like bullying and harassment, which cause the plummeting of morale and productivity, among other things. Another less obvious behavior that can produce similar effects is passive aggression.
Passive aggressive behavior is covert, subtle and an indirect form of aggression. Those witnessing and on the receiving end of it may find the behavior to be quite confusing.
Any number of different factors could be causing the behavior. Typically, some sort of personal problem that has gone unaddressed is at the root of things. Perhaps the passive aggressive employee feels unappreciated, misunderstood, or takes issue with authority. Whether it is one big problem, or a combination of little things that have built up over time, they start to harbor anger and/or resentment toward the individual, or group of individuals, in the office that they feel has wronged them.
Passive aggressive actions are how their anger gets expressed, rendering truth to the conventional wisdom that actions speak louder than words. Examples of passive aggressive behavior include: an excessive use of sarcasm; employing questionable tone, particularly through electronic communication platforms; agreeing to do something without follow-through; neglect of responsibilities and in some cases manipulation or even intentional sabotage of a project. The level of disruption is directly dependent upon the degree to which these behaviors are performed.
Of course that list is non-exhaustive, but no matter how passive aggression manifests, there is always a barrier present that prevents proper, open and honest communication. Most of the time that barrier is fear. Some folks have a lot of confrontation anxiety, which causes them to avoid expressing their true feelings. They may also be afraid of upsetting others and the possibility that others will then reject them. It could also be a low self-esteem issue and perhaps a fear that their feelings are invalid.
It is important to have an understanding of the possible causes when identifying and subsequently preparing to confront passive aggressive behavior, but certainly no assumptions should be made. Maintain a calm and objective demeanor and show the passive aggressive person that you value their concerns and are a safe person for them to address those with. The last thing you want to do is fight fire with fire. That tactic will only compound problems and serve as validation to the person initiating the passive aggression that their behavior was called for or just. It may be a real challenge for those exhibiting this behavior to recognize what they’re doing/have done, much less, articulate it and work towards improvement. Examination of the root(s) of the problem, the effects of the behavior, and possible resolution are all necessary to achieve a more pleasant work environment for all employees. If you recognize your own passive aggressive patterns before someone else confronts you, try to engage in some deep, self-reflection to see if you can access these things on your own. And if you’re the co-worker of a passive aggressive person, remember that they may need a lot of probing and guidance (and patience) to work through things.
Conflict is an absolute inevitability and it can be a good and productive thing if dealt with in a mature, healthy manner. Passive aggression is a coping mechanism that encourages the bad kind of conflict. Learning to recognize alternative solutions and confronting problems openly and honestly will greatly improve interpersonal relations at work as well as enhance the quality of your projects.