By Jim Wong, CPA | February 21, 2014


If you work in a traditional office environment, you’ve certainly encountered passive aggression. It often manifests itself as subtle water cooler gossip, an intentionally missed deadline, going over a supervisor’s head, or a failure to take responsibility for tasks.

No matter the shape it takes, passive aggression in the office can be destructive to interpersonal relations, and can grind productivity to a halt.

In a recent Inc.com post, contributor Christina Desmarais interviews Signe Whitson, coauthor of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, and COO of Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute.

“Sometimes the hierarchy of a workplace makes the direct expression of anger seem like insubordination,” she says. “People feel like they can’t be emotionally honest with someone who’s in charge of their pay-checks so they find ways to express their anger in these indirect passive-aggressive ways instead.”

Whitson offers her strategies for dealing with passive aggressive personalities in the office.

1: Don’t mirror the anger: If you encounter a passive-aggressive personality in your organization, Whitson recommends that by simply being responsible for your own behavior and responses, you can keep office relationships on an even keel.

Remember, passive aggression is about getting a strong emotional reaction — anger — out of the recipient.

Diffuse the situation by not mirroring the anger back in your own response.

2: Foster direct communication: By creating a culture that values direct and face-to-face communication whenever possible, business leaders make it more difficult for passive-aggressive behavior to manifest itself via electronic communication.

Have an open door policy with people in your organization, and encourage everyone to do the same.

When issues arise, they can be addressed directly with a knock on the office door and a quick chat.

3: Delineate expectations: Communicating openly and honestly with the members of your team about deadlines, responsibilities, and standards of quality makes finger pointing and excuses less likely.

“Setting clear expectations and clear consequences makes it much more difficult for the passive-aggressive behavior to be successful in the workplace,” says Whitson.

4: Allow for honesty: The most successful organizations allow for honesty between leaders and employees. A work environment that values honesty and open communication gives employees an opportunity to be heard when dissatisfied.

5: Ask about the anger: Asking someone directly about passive-aggressive tendencies in their behavior can be an effective way of getting to the root of the problem.

“The last thing the passive-aggressive person wants to do is be called on their anger. They’re working so hard to mask it and hide behind it all of these behaviors so it really is an effective technique for a boss or supervisor,” says Whitson.

Have you encountered passive-aggression in your workplace?


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