How to deal with passive-aggressive behaviour

How to deal with passive-aggressive behaviour

 “It’s your fault that I forgot, because you didn’t remind me.” —Anonymous

Is there someone you interact with who consistently makes you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster? Someone who is friendly one day but sulks and withdraws the next? Or do they consistently procrastinate, postpone, stall, and shut down conversations?

Overt aggression is easy to spot and is obviously unacceptable workplace conduct. But what about passive-aggressive behaviour? Passive-aggression can be defined as anger, hostility, and/or learned helplessness in disguise, expressed in covert ways to gain an underhanded perceived advantage. The DSM-IV describes passive-aggression as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.”

Fundamentally, passive-aggressive people struggle to ask for what they want, and resort to manipulative tactics to get their needs met.  This can manifest as a tendency to engage in indirect expression of hostility through acts such as subtle insults, sullen behaviour, stubbornness, or a deliberate failure to accomplish required tasks. Because passive-aggressive behaviour is implicit or indirect, it can be hard to spot, even when you’re feeling the psychological consequences.

Misery loves company

The intention of subtle verbal hostility is to put the other person down to feel dominant and superior, which causes the other person to feel insecure or inadequate. It can also feed a false sense of importance, by being persistently critical and negative, and reflect competing for power and control in a relationship.  Examples – gossip, negative mindset, habitual criticism, patronising such as addressing an adult like a child, invalidating others’ experiences and feelings, backhanded compliments “you’ve done so well with someone from your educational background” or “that’s so brave wearing that colour at your age”.

“Just joking”

Using “jokes” or humour to express hidden anger, disapproval and rejection by showing disdain for the other person. This is an attempt to marginalise another person’s humanity, dignity and credibility under the guise of “just having fun” and sarcasm.  If the other person reacts negatively, they are likely to say “Why are you getting so upset?   It was just a joke.” The person takes pleasure out of setting others up to lose their temper and then questioning their over-reaction. Examples – repetitive teasing, subtle “digs” about a person’s appearance, gender, socio-cultural background, qualifications, behaviour, decisions, appearance. “Not to sound racist, but…”, “I’m just saying…”

Silent treatment

A way of expressing anger and resentment indirectly, enacting covert punishment. There is an intent to create a negative and disconcerting environment and throw other people off balance by making them feel insecure and questioning about their reality. Examples – acting as if you are invisible, social exclusion, neglect, sullen resentment, shut down conversations with “Fine” or “Whatever”.

The blame game

Projecting and distorting accountability and truth to avoid responsibility. This entails manipulating the facts and gaslighting or misdirecting to remove focus off the actual issue. Examples – feigning compliance, blaming others for one’s own irresponsibility, negligence, or failures, blaming others for one’s own unwillingness to follow reasonable rules or professional conduct, deliberate omission, “I thought you knew already”, rationalisation and minimisation, “you’re blowing this out of proportion, it’s just…”, “do what you want”, “whatever works for you”.


Avoiding responsibility and obligations by stalling, procrastination is a way of frustrating others and/or getting out of certain tasks without having to directly refuse them. It can reflect a jealousy of others’ success, with attempts to make life harder through passive competitiveness and covert resistance.  Examples- forgetting, stonewalling, withholding resources or information, unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape, excuse making, broken agreements, lack of follow through. “I didn’t know you meant now”, complying with a particular request, but carrying it out in an intentionally inefficient way and when called out on this, accusing the other person of holding unreasonable standards.


Channelling and projecting unspoken or unresolved past issues in to covert expressions of anger and resentment. Can reflect jealousy and is aimed at subtly administering punishment or revenge. Examples – purposely undermining tasks or agreements, causing harm or loss materially, overspending, deliberately disclosing harmful information, deliberately obstructing communication and work efforts, feigning innocence or confusion, lying, using calculating means to get what they want or manipulate the response of others while keeping their aggressive intentions under cover

What can you do?

The ideal rule when dealing with toxic, manipulative people is avoid contact. Just don’t engage anymore. Nice in theory, but what if you have to work with them every day?

Know your vulnerabilities and “buttons” and don’t assume that by you being nice, they will then change and be nice. The only thing you can control is your reaction and behaviour. Be crystal clear about your boundaries and what you expect from them. And be prepared for consequences. If they feels like they’re losing, they’ll do anything to regain dominance. You need to anticipate their behaviour and tactics and know what to expect to protect yourself. Make sure you have a support system in place.

Be on the lookout for tactics rather than paying attention to the content of what they are saying. Label the tactics immediately when you detect them but don’t get sucked in by the tactics themselves. Reinforce the idea in your mind that they are fighting for something. Then, respond entirely on the basis of what you legitimately want or need. Don’t react instinctively and defensively to what they’re doing. Judge actions, not intentions and don’t accept excuses. Keep the focus of the conversation on them and their behaviour. And avoid using sarcasm, hostility or threats. Make direct requests and only accept direct responses. Then propose as many win:win solutions as you can generate. You want an agreement that is clear and enforceable with no wriggle room. They get what they want if you get what you want.

Giving frequent, respectful and constructive feedback helps to create a culture of open conversations. Most employees want corrective feedback from their managers. Nearly three quarters of employees believe that their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback. Almost half of managers (44%) fear giving it. People who are confident of their strengths are secure enough to shine a light on their weaknesses. Insecure people are generally less willing to say something that may hurt their likability.  As more people become comfortable giving and receiving feedback, passive-aggressive behaviour will dissipate, creating an environment where a culture of accountability can flourish.

The best way to avenge yourself is to not be like that” ~ Marcus Aurelius

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