Do you have a teammate driving you bonkers with passive-aggressive behavior? That person who nods and goes along in your meetings, then moans and complains about the decisions afterward? The one who’s all smiles and saccharine when dealing with someone face-to-face and then vicious and vociferous behind their back.
So, what should you do, smile and try to escape quickly? Confront them about how petty they’re being? Join them and spill the tea? Yup, those are all options, but there are more constructive things you can do.
Don’t Tolerate Passive-aggressive Behavior
You’ll likely get more of it if you tolerate (ignore, downplay, brush over, or condone) passive-aggressiveness. That’s because when your colleague raises their concerns and complaints privately or indirectly, they can’t be addressed or resolved; the problem persists and probably gets amplified.
And passive-aggressiveness spreads. Most of your teammates will sense your passive-aggressive colleague’s smoldering hostility and start to mistrust the explicit conversation because they know there’s an entirely different narrative below the surface. Some will respond with their own passive-aggressiveness, while others might get fed up and read them the riot act.
Of course, your team might also have that one person who’s utterly oblivious to the subtext of the conversation. They don’t even pick up on passive-aggressiveness. When you mention that the air is thick, they give you that face like, what are you talking about? It’s fine! While ignorance is bliss for your delightfully imperceptive co-worker, it means you bear the brunt of the dysfunction.
For your own sanity and to restore harmony and productivity, you’re best to take action in response to your colleague’s passive-aggressive behavior. But, of course, your exact approach depends on how their grievances manifest. Here are a few good options.
Recommend the Right Forum
Gossip is probably the form of passive-aggressive behavior you suffer with most. If your colleague is raising the right issues in the wrong forum—by gossiping about them where they can’t be remedied—encourage them to broach the topic at a better time and place and with the right audience. Here are a few ways to do that.
“I agree that we’ve been avoiding this decision for too long. What if you mentioned it on Friday in our staff meeting?”
“That’s a great point. But, unfortunately, only Talia can fix that. So, how would you raise the issue with her?
“You’re right. If you’re going to change that, it will require input from Finance. Whom could you talk to that has influence over that process?”
The secret to pivoting is that you start by validating their concerns so they feel like you’re an ally; then, you can be constructive about how they might resolve their issue rather than just complaining about it to you.
Help with the Right Words
Another common way your teammate might be passive-aggressive is by being indirect, snarky, or snide without addressing their problem directly. Many passive-aggressive people turn to sarcasm or one-liners, while others throw in a dramatic sigh or a 180° eye-roll to signal their discontent without doing anything to improve it. If your colleague hints at their discontent without hitting the issue head-on, help them find the words to address the problem constructively. Try something like this:
“It sounds like there’s something important beneath that comment. How are you thinking about the impact of that option?”
“I don’t know how to interpret your silence. How do you feel about this issue?”
“I’m noticing that your body language has shifted. What is this conversation bringing up for you?”
It’s important not to let your colleague get away with subversive opposition. Instead, frame a question that invites them to expose their thought process so team members can address any issues directly.
Note: one common and debilitating version of passive-aggressive behavior is the common line, “Let’s agree to disagree.” This article talks about the cost of that thinking and gives you strategies to move beyond it.
Reduce the Fear of Reprisal
Your colleague might channel their discontent into whispers, one-liners, or eye rolls because they don’t feel safe raising their concerns directly. Passive-aggressiveness is the guerilla warfare of teamwork where you don’t have the big guns to fight the battle directly, so you hurl improvised explosive devices from the bushes. Your job is to play diplomat so the issue can be resolved peacefully. That might look like this:
“I’m not sure we’re having the discussion we need to have. If we’re going to resolve this, we need to talk about the things we’re thinking but not saying.”
“I think it’s important that we revisit this issue because I don’t think we’re aligned on what we’ve agreed. So can we go around and each say what we believe we need to do.”
“This is going to be an uncomfortable discussion, so can we take a moment to talk about how we can have it respectfully.”
It’s challenging to coerce a controversial opinion from someone who isn’t confident in how it will be received. Because of that, you want to take every opportunity you get to reinforce the importance of having uncomfortable conversations to get to a resolution. Whether you’re a team member or the leader, there’s plenty you can do to make it feel a little safer to raise concerns directly so they don’t leak out passively.
Recognize their Efforts
Sometimes people learn passive-aggressiveness in response to being invalidated, ignored, or shut down. Suppose your colleague has had nothing but negative consequences for raising contentious issues. In that case, you can help them see the value of discussing problems openly, acknowledging the risk, and rewarding their efforts. You can say things like this:
“Wow. I’m so glad you raised that issue. We’ve been dancing around that, and I think we’ll get further if we can address it head-on.”
“How you framed that issue helped us get our heads around what we’ve been ignoring all along. I’m sure it took guts to say that, and I appreciate it.”
“I got upset when you raised that issue in the meeting, but it was right for you to raise it. I’m sorry that I reacted that way. I’d love to hear more about your concerns.”
If all your colleague has received in return for candor is frustration, contradiction, and isolation, it’s no surprise that they save their dissent for private conversations or slip it into snide remarks under their breath. However, you can counteract that conditioning by acknowledging and thanking them for raising issues directly. If you want to ensure that your gratitude sinks in, try delivering it in the form of well-crafted positive feedback.
It can be a real drag to deal with a colleague behaving passively-aggressive. For one, you have to deal with all the pull-aside conversations, exasperated sighs, and snarky comments. But worse than that, you have to live with unresolved grievances and misaligned marching orders that slow your team down. So rather than resign yourself to the vicious cycle of your teammate’s passive-aggressive behavior, help to channel their concerns into the proper forums, find the words to convey their criticisms constructively, protect them from reprisal, and see the benefits not just the risk of speaking up.