Identify, understand and deal with behavior to create an environment that works for all personalities
by Nicholas Phillips
September 13, 2013

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.

The Well-Timed White Knight: On the lookout for the right time to step in and save the day, this person waits until the boss is unavailable or out of the office to create a crisis. He then steps in and goes over the boss’ head, seeking out his manager in order to gain approval for necessary actions. This person can be counted on to do what needs to be done in order to take care of the self-created crisis while the boss is out, giving the appearance that the boss is partially unreliable and this person is a hero.

The Prolonged Performer: No task 
is too big or small, and ultimate completion of a task is not an issue; however, the time it takes to finish a job becomes the real problem. This person is willing and able to take 
on an assignment but takes so long 
to complete it that the task-giver is sorry he ever asked in the first place.

The Nodding Nuisance: Though miniature problems may arise and comments may be made in private, this person operates in a state of agreeable dormancy so as to avoid making waves or expressing disdain in public. The boss may complain to others about a perceived bad attitude, but because the employee’s public persona indicates that he is easygoing and compliant, co-workers assume this employee is a quiet contributor. The boss is left looking like the bad guy for drumming up something out of seemingly nothing.

Addressing the Behaviors

Once you know who you are dealing with, identify potential passive-aggressive behavior to figure out a counter strategy that will prevent the actions from having a negative effect. For instance, in dealing with “The Intentional Inefficient,” you might portray an assignment from the start as being very simple. This way, if the person completes the task successfully it was as expected, but making subtle mistakes or intentionally working in an inefficient manner would only seem like the person could not handle an easy assignment. This strategy also often works with “The Prolonged Performer.”

In the case of dealing with “The Perplexed Pretender,” it’s usually a good idea to give smaller chunks of instruction and require written (via email) summarization of expectations. This way, there is direct two-way communication that instructions were clear, and the chunked approach to giving instruction provides little room for complaining about the level of supposed difficulty. It also gives a manager written documentation of a potential deficiency in either the ability or willingness of an employee to do the job. With “The Well-Timed White Knight,” giving broad or general authority, in advance, for the individual to take care of emergencies or seek approval from another superior in your absence can block the person’s plans to pounce when you’re away. It could also transfer ownership to the individual, thus encouraging more appropriate behavior.

Individuals who exhibit passive-
aggressive behavior are not simply bad eggs with nothing better to do than make other people look bad. Often, there is a root cause, and most likely there is an emotional catalyst igniting passive-aggressive actions. Without taking time to identify what this may be and how it can be fixed, all the preemptive strategies in the world won’t work for long.

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to recognize and manage feelings in one’s self and in others, so they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people to manage, motivate, lead and work together smoothly toward common goals and organizational success. By first performing a self-assessment of your own emotional intelligence, either informally or formally through such metrics as the ECI (Emotional Competence Inventory), and then looking outward to recognize feelings someone else may have and be externalizing through passive-aggression, you can often repair what is broken and end the passive-aggressive behaviors that are causing a negative work atmosphere.

Though often silently pervasive, employees who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior can cause real problems in the workplace. While not always easy to identify, and often doubly difficult to curb, dealing with such passive negative expressions is possible through a deliberate and pre-thought out approach, non-aggressive counter actions, conscious and prudent resolve—and with a little patience.