“A passive-aggressive person is basically angry, but he or she is expressing anger in indirect ways,” says Loriann Oberlin. Dealing with somebody who is unhappy but unwilling to talk about it directly can be confusing, even infuriating.
Ask a person who is in passive-aggressive mode to complete a task, for example, and the “positive” response you get (“Of course, I would love to make 200 copies of this memo!”) may be so full of unspoken resistance that you wonder if the job will get done at all.
A passive-aggressive co-worker’s thinly veiled resentment and hostility can sap the energy of a whole group. The net result — on morale, teamwork, communication and results — can be devastating. That’s why Oberlin suggests taking decisive steps in coping with this type of high-maintenance colleague.
Barriers To Overcome
- Confusing communication. Passive-aggressive people might say one thing (like “Sure, sounds great!”) and mean quite another, which can be disorienting and disconcerting. You may simply have no idea how to respond.
- Mixed messages. You may be tempted to consider a passive-aggressive individual’s apparent agreement as a commitment: She said she’d handle the project, didn’t she? And yet, on some level, you may sense there’s a very real possibility that she will not do what she “agreed” to do — or that she’ll do it but resent it, perhaps making you wish you’d never asked.
- Fighting fire with fire. Since the passive-aggressive person is angry to begin with, he or she is likely to meet anger with even greater defiance. “You won’t get very far if you roll your eyes or get sarcastic in return,” says Oberlin. You’ll just escalate the situation.
- Bad boundaries. “Passive-aggressive people tend to seek out people-pleasers,” says Oberlin, “because they know that they can push their buttons.” If you’re conflict-averse or have trouble setting boundaries, passive-aggressive people may tend to target you, making you the focal point of their hostilities. They may create dramas that directly affect you at work.