Passive-aggression at the workplace is the virus no one can see but is a silent killer of team morale. Angry feelings are inevitable when we spend a great part of our days with the same people, and there is often no pressure valve for release. The fear of being judged, or worse losing a promotion/raise because of “not getting along” is very real. Without a safe space for direct communication, passive-aggressive behavior thrives, sapping away at employee engagement and our energy levels.

The key to battling this hidden hostility is a direct yet friendly approach, try these out:

Ask yourself “so what?”

Tit for tat is never healthy. Jane didn’t come to my birthday celebration in the conference room. That can hurt, but ask yourself, “So what?” If the answer is not a meaningful impact on your life, you may want to just let it go. If in turn, exclude her at the next team meeting, you become a voluntary participant in this zero-sum game.

Direct approach: If you really care, talk to Jane, problem-solve the issue. If you don’t, then accept that not everyone at work is a friend – take the high road. Without retaliation Jane will likely lose steam. Focus on being professional.

Nip it in the bud

Mike, a member of your team, disagrees with a recent project direction. You realized it after he’s missed two meetings and on attending the third, spends most of his attention on his smartphone. In this case, the “so what?” has a real consequence. As his manager, you can try sarcastic comments, start to sideline him & give him a poor review in two months. The other option is to nip it in the bud.

Direct approach:  Invite Mike to a 1:1, allow him to voice his opinions.  Clarify the value of his role on the project. Once you address his recent behavior, you can set clear expectations, explain the repercussions and hold him accountable going forward.

Lighten with laughter

My favorite form of passive-aggression is the backhanded compliment. Imagine, you took some time to complete a project but it turned out well. Nina stops by your desk.  “Great job,’ she says, ‘I guess it helps when you can take all week.” If you appear offended, she was just joking, of course. You will find your passive-aggressive associates are very good at feigning shock when you are upset! However, humor is the two-way street you can also use to get your point across.

Direct approach: Respond with gentle humor while pointing out you understand she attempted to be insulting. Make it clear you’re not going to take it (or her) seriously or be offensive in return! Laughter can shine a light and diffusing barely-hidden hostility surprisingly effectively.

Encourage honesty

You may need to grow a thicker skin, especially if it’s our manager that is passive-aggressive. You’re now at the wrong end of both power dynamics! For instance, you have requested to work on a project, but can’t seem to get a commitment from yo­­ur boss. There is a lot of avoidance and apparent confusion. You could just back down and secretly fantasize about spiking his morning Starbucks. Or?

Direct approach: Request feedback.  Confront your boss, “I know you’re aware I am interested but you don’t seem enthusiastic. Can we discuss your concerns?” Followed by the magic words, “I won’t take it personally.” Encouraging honesty can open up the flow of communication and growth for your career. Note – be prepared for the truth!

Direct and friendly is a great way to approach situations. If you have a tried and true way to handle passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace, do share it with us! Need help managing it feel free to email me.

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