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How To Eliminate Passive Aggressive Behavior In Your Team

Posted by Insightlink on 03/15/17

Employees who complain openly and freely are often referred to as ‘squeaky wheels’. They make their dissatisfaction no secret so you know who is unhappy and what their issues are. But what about the employees who don’t speak up? How do you know what, if any, struggles or issues they might be experiencing? As employee researchers, we tell our clients that one of the key reasons for doing an employee survey is because it gives everyone a chance to express themselves so you aren’t just listening to the squeaky wheels. You actually get to hear what everyone is really thinking. And that is important because employees who don’t speak up could be seething inside and what you may discover is that they are acting out in passive aggressive ways that have serious consequences in workplace settings.

By definition, passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullen behavior, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.

The cost of passive-aggressiveness is high. Passive-aggressive employees can sabotage deadlines, morale and productivity. They can slow down decision making, break down trust between co-workers, create communication barriers and cause animosity with other employees. If the problems go unaddressed, workplaces become toxic as the prolonged stress of unresolved issues escalates. 

In an article published by SHRM, Signe Whitson writes that passive-aggressive behavior can manifest itself in one or more of the following ways:

  • Temporary compliance. The passive-aggressive employee often feels underappreciated and expresses his underlying anger through temporary compliance. Though he verbally agrees to do a task, he delays completion by procrastinating, forgetting deadlines, misplacing documents or arriving late. For the passive-aggressive worker who feels under-acknowledged, temporary compliance is satisfying.
  • Intentional inefficiency. The passive-aggressive worker finds it more important to express covert hostility than to maintain an appearance of professional competence. She uses intentional inefficiency to complete work in a purposefully unacceptable way.
  • Letting a problem escalate. Teamwork and communication are key to productivity. When a passive-aggressive employee withholds information or deliberately fails to stop a glitch from turning into an irreversible gaffe, operations can halt. Misuse of sick days may help identify a passive-aggressive employee. For example, Brenda called in sick the day before a deadline, knowing that her presence was critical. She took pleasure in single-handedly foiling completion of the quarterly report and in the resulting companywide affirmation that without her, the department could not progress.
  • Sabotage is the name of the game for the passive-aggressive employee who justifies her crimes of omission by saying, "I didn’t do anything."
  • Hidden but conscious revenge. In contrast to the inaction that marks the previous tactic, some employees use covert actions to get revenge on supervisors. The passive-aggressive employee is aware that the person he is angry with has enough power to make his life miserable, so he decides it is not safe to confront him directly. Whether by spreading gossip that maligns the boss’ reputation or misplacing a document, the passive-aggressive employee finds justification in secret revenge.

Signe says any of the following behaviors are tell-tale signs you have a passive aggressive employee in your midst:

  • Avoids responsibility for tasks.
  • Performs less when asked for more.
  • Misses deadlines.
  • Withholds information.
  • Professional activities:
  • Leaves notes and uses e-mail to avoid face-to-face communication.
  • Arrives late to work and extends lunch breaks.
  • Uses sick days during major team projects.
  • Resists suggestions for change or improvement.
  • "Forgets" and "misplaces" important documents.
  • Embarrasses co-workers during meetings and presentations.
  • Justifies behavior with plausible explanations.
  • Consistently behaves this way.

Liane Davey author of HBR’s Reduce Passive Aggressive Behavior On Your Team says, ‘Team members resort to passive-aggressive behavior when they perceive the discomfort of addressing an issue directly to be greater than the discomfort of addressing it indirectly — or not addressing it at all'. 

Davey goes on to suggest the following techniques for integrating conflict in healthy ways:

  • Make it possible for people to feel more comfortable by openly disagreeing.
  • First, hold a special session to discuss why conflict is a good thing. Be explicit about the need for conflict, and work with the team to set your conflict ground rules.
  • When a contentious issue comes up in ongoing interactions, remind the team of your expectations: “This is a sensitive discussion and it’s one we need to have out in the open” or “I would ask everyone to weigh in on this” or “How are we going to approach this discussion productively?”
  • Make sure you identify passive-aggressive behavior every time you see it. For example, when body language is negative, ask, “I’ve noticed that you’ve pushed away from the table. How are you reacting to this discussion?” or “I just saw three people roll their eyes. What’s going on?”
  • Commonly, passive-aggressive behavior is expressed with sarcasm. Don’t allow humor to shut things down. Say, “We’ve enjoyed a laugh, now let’s get back to Bob’s point” or “I get the sense we’re using humor to avoid a serious discussion. What’s making this conversation difficult?”
  • At the end of every meeting ask, “What haven’t we talked about?” or “How might someone criticize this idea?” Similarly, before making a decision, ask, “Are we ready to make this decision?” or “What could we consider that would improve the quality of this decision?” or “What might cause us to re-open this decision after we make it?” You want people to feel like they are contributing positively by raising a conflicting perspective.
  • When someone does introduce a different point of view, spend time discussing it. You might say, “That is a really different way of looking at this issue — what can we gain from that perspective?” or “If we assume Joe’s point is true, what would be the implications?” If you suspect that the dissenting opinion might be unpopular, lend it credence (without necessarily agreeing with it) by saying something such as “That’s not how I was thinking about it. Can you explain your reasoning?”
  • Finally, you need to shut down all back channels. Those meetings after the meeting need to stop. When a team member comes to complain outside the meeting, redirect them: “I’m concerned that I didn’t hear this point of view in the meeting. What are you hoping to accomplish by raising it now?” or “Tell me about your decision not to raise this in the team meeting.”

From an employee research perspective, it is important to know where you stand in terms of job satisfaction and employee engagement. An in-depth, well-designed employee survey can uncover issues that could be barriers to having open, direct and productive conflict. To understand how frustrated, stressed and anxious your employees are, we recommend you begin by asking everyone for their thoughts and opinions using a confidential employee survey. Employee research is our expertise and we can show you how a well-designed survey tool can give you the stories you need to hear about what your employees are experiencing. Please check our website for more information or call Lynn Gore our Client Communications Specialist at 866-822-8095 ext. 705 or email us at


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