We’ve all experienced it: the comment that is seemingly benign yet leaves us feeling we’ve been attacked. Or the confusing way our colleague’s words do not marry up with their actions. Passive-aggressive behaviour is a deliberate way of expressing anger in a seemingly non-hostile way — and one of the hardest emotional dynamics to address due to its root nature. At their core, passive-aggressive communications rest on the fear and avoidance of direct conflict, as well as a feeling of powerlessness and insecurity, according to psychologists.
Research conducted by the Gender Action Portal at the Harvard Kennedy School showed that while men exhibit assertive behaviours more frequently in general, women have the same abilities as men to behave and speak assertively but are context conscious. As such, greater reluctance to express their needs in the workplace can put many women in prime position to resort to passive-aggressive communication. The ‘assertiveness double-bind’ also creates challenges for women in how direct they are in their communication — this leadership quality being at once necessary and also breaching gender stereotypes, risking a perception of being ‘bossy’ or ‘difficult’ for their directness.
Passive-aggression itself can manifest in many different ways, from sarcasm masquerading as humour and backhanded compliments to feigning ignorance, insincere apologies, withholding important information or persistent lateness. It can be hard to spot too, if easy to sense. An innocent statement, such as, ‘It doesn’t matter to me’ can in fact belie a person to whom it matters a lot, but who doesn’t feel able to put forward their opinion — with resulting resentment, disengagement or even subtle sabotage of the project in question — while a person who interrupts you may be looking to block or assert their authority over you, depending on how sincere their apology is.
However it manifests though, passive-aggression in the workplace breeds mistrust, anger and resentment. In leadership, it can be powerfully toxic, manifesting variously in blaming others for mistakes, avoiding building relationships with employees, giving vague feedback or putting confusing workplace rules in place. ‘My previous boss would send me urgent documents to review out of hours without warning,’ says project manager, Laura*. ‘She was forever telling the team to ‘have a lovely evening’ but then making sure that that wasn’t going to be possible for me.’
Essentially, passive-aggression is an indirect form of aggression — not necessarily a milder form of aggression, and it can have a big impact on wellbeing. But it is possible to mitigate the behaviour with awareness and effort. We look at eight ways to challenge passive-aggression in yourself and others for healthier communication.
Understanding your own passive-aggression
Recognising your own behaviours
Get out of your comfort zone and ask yourself some questions about your interactions. Executive coach Muriel Maignan Wilkins suggests for starters looking at whether you’ve shared your honest view on a topic, praised someone in public but criticised them in private or got upset with someone without telling them. Also start to notice circumstances that drive you to take a passive-aggressive stance. Who was involved? How did the situation unfold? What did you feel? How did you react? Is there a pattern? With awareness of what is really driving you, you can then consciously explore other ways to respond.
Close the gap between anger and silence
A disconnect between what you say and do is the crucible for passive-aggressive behaviour and requires closing the gap between anger and silence. For many women though, directly expressing their needs with all of the potential for confrontation can feel risky and threatening — but conflict is not necessarily a bad thing if it is direct and respectful, and disagreeing with someone doesn’t typically mean that the relationship is in danger. Letting go of passive-aggression means accepting that conflict is a natural part of life and finding new strategies to express needs and boundaries.
Believe in your right to express yourself
If you believe you have the right to express your wants and needs, you will have less fear of being rejected or confronted for speaking up. Consequently, you’re then more likely to be direct and have less need, if any, to be passive-aggressive to get your point across. Realising it’s OK to have needs, be angry or have an unpopular opinion — and that assertiveness is not the same as aggression in expressing those — is key. You might also need to let go of the idea of ‘being likeable’ too, which can be a handbrake on many women in the move to becoming more assertive. You can be a positive (and likeable) person and still feel emotions you might typically label as ‘negative’.
Avoid meeting others’ passive-aggressive behaviour with your own
It’s futile to engage in a fight with someone who is trying to get you to act out their anger for them, says Signe Whitson in Psychology Today.’ Instead, she recommends stating facts directly. Let the person know the impact of their behaviour and your response to it in clear statements, even though a classic passive-aggressive move is to deny that the behaviour is happening or insinuate the other person is overreacting. The crucial thing is not to create a power struggle with someone who is being passive-aggressive, or you risk feeling frustrated and off-balance yourself, or escalating it further.
Dealing with passive-aggression in others
Look at the behaviour, not the person
Author of Stop Lying, Start Moving Vikayraj Kamat notes, ‘There are no passive-aggressive people. There is passive-aggressive behaviour’. If you can work out why someone needs to respond in a passive-aggressive way and what they feel they cannot express, it can feel less personal and more manageable. As Amy Su, co-author of Own the Room notes, passive-aggression is ‘an unproductive expression of emotions that [someone] can’t share constructively.’ Sometimes direct questions can help them to investigate their needs; sometimes they will remain in denial. In both cases, keeping it clear that communication channels are open is key, rather than shutting down in reaction.
Chances are that if someone is being passive-aggressive to you they will have a history of this communication pattern. But if you want to make headway in dealing with them then bringing up past behaviour is not a good tactic. As Scott Wetzler, author of Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man notes ‘If your aunt tells you she likes your new haircut because it makes your face look slimmer, rather than accusing her of criticising you constantly, explain why that remark is hurtful to you’. Addressing the behaviour in the moment will help contain it and stop it from escalating into a more personal and nebulous emotional conflict that will draw the focus away from the reasons for the actual behaviour itself.
Create an empowering workplace culture
As a leader, create opportunities for your team to express themselves fully in safe spaces — perhaps in regular one-to-ones, and reward people when they’re assertive, to show that expressing yourself is accepted and encouraged in the workplace. If passive-aggression is being shown, perhaps by someone being tardy on projects they’ve agreed to or who is chronically late then try and get to the bottom of what they’re not saying — does lateness imply they don’t like their job or that they would like more flexibility, for example? Do they feel they can’t speak up about projects, so go along with things they’re not really invested in?
Responding to passive-aggression also involves setting limits to protect yourself. As Scott Wetzler notes, it’s about saying 'I'm not going to pay the price for your behaviour'. Setting limits can externalise the behaviour of others and putting it where it belongs – in their emotional wheelie bin. This can be as simple as calling out the behaviour when you see it: ‘Please don’t do that again. If you’d like to make a point please wait until I am finished’. Or informing them if they’re late again to a meeting they won’t be able to join it. In extreme circumstances, you may want to minimise contact, or even cut ties. A discreet talk with your line manager can create space physically or collaboratively between you and a difficult colleague. However, if your boss is being passive-aggressive you may need to consider whether the workplace you’re in is still supportive enough to nurture your potential.