Dealing with passive-aggressive colleagues

Do you work with someone who regularly doesn’t do what they say they will?

Do you sense that they are frustrated in some way, even though they say they are fine?

Do they regularly complain to others, instead of speaking to you directly?
If you know someone like this, they certainly can be very frustrating to work with. But it is important that we understand that behind such passive-aggressive behaviour is a strong need to avoid conflict.
To be honest, I don’t like the word ‘passive-aggressive’. I think it is a catch-all word that is too-easily used to label people who are exhibiting very human behaviour.
Not communicating frustrations directly with colleagues is very common in Australian workplaces. Many people who are indirect simply learn how to cope with their frustrations and move on.
But there are some with a reputation for letting their frustrations come out through their behaviour – ongoing complaining to others, unreliable performance, verbal aggression, or even a tantrum or hissy fit.
So, what can you do if you are dealing with such behaviour? Here are some options:

  1. Look for subtle signals of their unhappiness: This might be their sullen demeanour, their tone or body language, avoidance behaviours, reports of their unhappiness from others, and specific tasks not being done in a timely manner.
  2. Speak to them directly: Don’t use a third party, if the difficulties are in the early stages. Also avoid speaking with them using technology or allowing them to hide behind this. Instead, organise a good time to speak with them in person.
  3. Start on a positive note: You could simply say that you want to get on the same page for the future. You could also ask if they are OK or guess how they are feeling and give them some empathy. Or you could define the problem in a face-saving way, perhaps that there was a communication breakdown.
  4. Challenge politely: You could say, ‘I know you say you are fine, but, at times I sense some frustration …’ My personal favourite is, ‘Can you help me understand why you …?’

    Sometimes, there will be a more honest dialogue about their frustrations or a very good explanation for why they behaved as they did. Other times, they will deny completely that they are frustrated or angry.

    At the very least, it will alert them that you are alert to their behaviour and are prepared to speak to them (politely) if it occurs again.
  5. Collaborate on solutions for the future: This is far more helpful rather than focusing on personal attacks or arguing over whose version of events is correct. Don’t label them as passive-aggressive, undermining, or difficult. And ignore any personal attacks or disrespectful communication that comes from them.

    Instead focus on the issue at hand and solutions for the future, such as speaking to you (sooner) if they have concerns, letting you know if they have any difficulty completing a task by a certain time, or perhaps both of you touching base more regularly to make sure you are both on the same page.

    Remember that genuine collaboration is very disarming of high-power personalities.
  6. Document everything: This is done to reduce the likelihood of miscommunications, them embellishing the truth, or altering the facts.

    For example, after they agree to do a particular task by a certain time, you might perhaps send them an email confirming the discussion. Towards the end of a meeting with them, you could also write down what was agreed (to keep you both on track) and for each to have a copy. At staff meetings, you could also minute who is going to do what by when.
  7. Have a back-up plan: One of the interesting things about people is that we are all creatures of habit. So, we may have to anticipate some of the problem behaviour continuing in some way and how we might respond.

    Back-up plans might include verbal or written reminders, follow-up meetings to reinforce progress or fine-tune the plan, or perhaps confiding in a colleague or your manager about other actions that can be taken.

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