Most of us are familiar with the term ‘passive aggressive’ (or pass-ag). Indeed, some of us may have used some lighthearted ‘pass-ag’ behaviour towards friends or family from time to time to make a point. But pass-ag characteristics in the workplace can be irritating at best and downright hostile or damaging at worst. So what is passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace and how can you overcome it if you’re affected?

What is passive aggressive behaviour? 

In a nutshell, passive aggressive behaviour is neatly summed up in this statement as: “a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There’s a disconnect between what a passive-aggressive person says and what he or she does.” [1] Or, as an old Chinese proverb puts it “Behind the smile, a hidden knife”.
But the spectrum can be wide, with passive aggressive behaviour ranging from subtle, good-humoured remarks or jibes among friends to more deliberately underhand, premeditated taunts or negative behaviour towards others to disguise feelings of anger, resentment, or a lack of confidence.
Examples of passive aggressive behavior in the workplace could be a coworker who uses sarcasm or gossips about others, teasing them or putting them down, either to their face or behind their back, and often using the words “I’m just joking” as a humorous distraction.
Alternatively, it might be a passive aggressive boss who willingly ignores you or your ideas or contributions, undermines you in front of your colleagues, or fails to give you the recognition you deserve for your achievements or performance goals.

How passive aggressive behaviour can affect the workplace 

There are many ways passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace can manifest itself. But many instances come down to individuals not being able to navigate beyond their own emotions or triggers. In turn, this can make them feel fearful, powerless, or inadequate with other people or certain situations.
In her blog post[2] from 2014, US counsellor, author, and educator, Signe Whitson details why passive aggressive behaviour thrives in the workplace. She claims it’s widespread because it “can be more convenient than confrontation and generally requires less skill than assertiveness. In the long run, passive aggressive behavior is even more destructive to interpersonal relationships than aggression.”
If an environment of passive aggressive behaviour is allowed to cultivate in the workplace, it can quickly escalate with damaging consequences, affecting productivity and team morale. It can also be hugely detrimental to the general working environment, culture, and reputation of a business.
At the heart of all ‘pass-ag’ behaviour is a breakdown in communication. If one of your colleagues continually displays passive aggressive behaviour towards you – or any other colleague – it can be easy to lash out in response or get your HR department involved rather than trying to take control of the situation directly.

How to deal with pass-ag behaviour 

If you or any colleagues find yourself being on the receiving end of passive aggressive behaviour, it can be uncomfortable to live with and hard to know how to deal with it effectively. But in recognising the situation, a handful of basic steps can help to successfully eliminate passive aggressiveness in the workplace.
Don’t rise to it – Knowing how to respond to pass-ag behaviour can be difficult, especially without being drawn into their drama. Try responding specifically to comments said to you in any given situation, rather than how the comment is said. So a sarcastic ‘thank you’ should be greeted with a simple ‘you’re welcome’. Stay cool, calm, and collected – and don’t rise to it.
Be assertive – Passive aggressive behaviour is all about avoidance and not tackling issues directly. By confronting someone and their pass-ag comments, try not to call them out by saying ‘you say this’ or ‘you do that’ which can sound accusational. Instead, assertively and positively explain to them how their comments make you feel by saying ‘I feel hurt/mocked/belittled’. This could help promote understanding.
Pick your battles – Everyone is different and some people slip into passive aggressive behaviour automatically. But just because it affects you doesn’t mean they’ll change. So decide if it’s worth your time and energy to make it right. If it’s someone you work closely with, then yes. If it’s someone you only come into contact with every now and again, don’t risk your own mental health by dwelling on it. Ignore it and move on.
Promote communication – Passive aggressive behaviour comes from someone’s lack of communication skills and willingness to be open and direct about their issues. By keeping face to face communication open at all times, encouraging mutual dialogue, and talking in person rather than by email or text, you can help bring positive change and stop passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace before it starts or becomes a bigger issue.
Improve your communication skills 
As we said earlier, passive aggressive behaviour really comes down to a breakdown in communication. But it highlights just how deep and complex interpersonal communication really is. As well as verbal communication, body language and tone of voice also play a big part in how we communicate. So understanding how to improve your communication skills is key to a more productive workplace.
If you’re wondering how to work with a passive aggressive person or if you’re managing any passive aggressive employees, our 1-day Effective Communication Training course could be what you need to improve your key communication skills. The course can be tailored to meet your workplace objectives, but covers key topics including, finding your style, triggers and how they affect people, and dealing with difficult situations.
Suited to smaller groups of up to a maximum of 15 people, the 1-day or ½-day course is delivered by one of our fully qualified communication training professionals at your choice of time and venue – anywhere in the UK. For more information and to book your course, call us today on 07831 119 941 or email

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