How to Manage Passive-Aggressive Employees

Identify, understand and deal with behavior to create an environment that works for all personalities

The workplace is an environment of tasks and transactions, projects and processes. But deep beneath the surface lurks a silent enemy—one who does not discriminate and who strikes over time, with its victim unaware until it’s too late. We’re talking about the passive-aggressive employee, whose poker face and quiet torment takes a toll on productivity and workforce equilibrium.

What is Passive-Aggressive?

Individuals who exhibit this style of behavior tend to express hostile and antagonistic feelings in non-aggressive ways. The passive-aggressive employee subtly exhibits behaviors that appear on the surface to be passive, but in reality are directed and purposeful, and intended to control, injure or assign negative third-party perception, while avoiding real responsibility. The result is unprovoked, offensive action toward another person in the workplace. Whether it’s directed toward the boss, a co-worker or even a particular group or department, passive-aggressive behavior causes workplace problems on a personal and organizational level.

The passive-aggressive employee is a tricky breed and not always easy to spot. Careful thought versus reactionary discipline is the best approach. Remember: This person’s strategy is to direct some level of aggression at another individual, often the boss, but to do so in a manner that makes him look innocent in the process. When dealing with this type of personality in the workplace, it is imperative to employ well-thought, preemptive counter-strategies that nip passive-aggressive behavior in the bud.

When confronted, employees who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior will act as though they are completely unaware of the frustration or hostility their actions create and will usually seem surprised to hear that there is an issue at all. These reactions, of course, are part of the overall problem.

The key to effectively dealing with passive-aggression lies in three ordered stages: type identification, counter strategy and emotional intelligence.

The first step to dealing with any employee performance or attitude issue is to identify what you are dealing with in order to proactively determine the best counteraction.

What Does It Look Like?

Diverse human nature guides our actions—positive and negative. The passive-aggressive employee does not necessarily have a specific look, rather he is identified through actions or behaviors employed in daily interpersonal communication and work. In that vein, these employees can be categorized into various types.

The Backstage Bellyache: This person can’t seem to get through the day without complaining or commenting on the boss’ deficiencies—to everyone except the boss. When given a task, a passive-aggressive employee prattles on about not being appreciated for the work he performs and unhappiness with the particular duty at hand, while subtly verbalizing an ill-directed contempt for the manner in which the task is delegated. To the boss, the individual displays signs of agreeable compliance, but a passive undertone of contempt still exists.

The Perplexed Pretender: When asked to assume responsibility for a job, this person feigns misunderstanding in an attempt to both perform less and provoke more. The individual does not refuse to do the work, nor does he get upset with the assignment; rather, he presents a phony conception of apologetic bewilderment, causing the boss to become bothered or angry.

The Counter Compliant: In being asked to perform a duty or complete a function, this person purposefully falls just short of compliance—but only to a point that complaining about it seems trivial. The individual silently, and with quiet contempt, takes action toward finishing a request, but in the process forces the other party to handle the last 10 percent. Because the work was technically done, the individual would reasonably be seen as having made an effort to comply, and griping about the minimal remaining work would make the task-giver seem insatiable and demanding.

The Intentional Inefficient: Knowing that ultimate responsibility for productivity, volume and efficiency falls squarely upon the shoulders of another, this person takes passive steps to diminish the ends. Claiming to have forgotten something, redirecting fault to others, subtly expressing disdain and making mistakes are actually strategic efforts to cast negative light on the person responsible for the results. The employee spins the failure to successfully complete the task as though it is due to its arduous nature and that someone else is to blame; therefore, responsibility is shifted to the person for whom the passive-aggressive behavior is intended.

The Convenient Contributor: This person does as little as possible when the boss is around, but as soon as his superior is unavailable, he dreams up a task that requires approval. Because the boss is not available it is necessary to go to the next line of management for approval. Had the boss been there, he could have dealt with the task. And while the boss may complain about a lack of performance from this individual, it appears to upper management as though the employee takes initiative. The claims from the boss lose credibility and make him seem unappreciative.

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