How to handle a passive-aggressive employee
Passive-aggressive behaviour at the workplace can be damaging to both the individual engaging in it and the team as a whole. It can create an environment of mistrust and hostility, impact morale, and lead to decreased productivity
We have all experienced “eerie behaviour” at our workplace sometime in our lives. Be it in the form of rude or inappropriate behaviour, sullen attitude, sarcastic comments, bullying, aggression, emotional abuse, social exclusion, or interpersonal conflict, organizations cannot fully control all their employees. This gives rise to passive aggression in the workspace. There are noticeable characteristics of passive-aggressive employees and managers need to take proactive steps to tackle negative and harmful behaviours.
In a 2022 study conducted by The Preply, a Boston-based language tutoring service, 20% of its 1,200 American respondents said that their co-workers were the people in their lives most likely to display passive-aggressive behaviour. While 73% said they had to handle passive-aggressive comments of one form or another at work – 52% experienced bouts of incivility on a weekly basis. Another research by Business Leader in 2022 stated that passive aggressive behaviour contributed to 39% of resignations in the year, making it the primary cause for many leaving their jobs.
The question here is, who is a passive-aggressive employee? From a psychological point of view, passive aggression is the description of a behavioural pattern that consists of expressing negative feelings indirectly rather than directly. Passive-aggressive individuals are known to be masters of covert abuse.
Passive-aggressive behaviour usually stems from external factors, like discord at home, emotional disturbances, childhood trauma, alcohol abuse, drug withdrawal, and personal insecurities, to mention a few. It occurs when an individual displays negative emotion without directly addressing an issue. Instead of working on self-improvement, passive-aggressive workers often direct their resentment towards unsuspecting co-workers or managers.
While passive-aggressive behaviour is unpleasant, it often comes from a place of hurt. People act passive-aggressively more due to insecurity or lack of self-esteem, rather than a desire to upset their colleagues. This can cause unrest, interrupt workflow, damage relationships, and can become the main reason for negative feelings erupting within the company or organization.
It is, thus, pivotal for employers to readily and quickly recognize the warning signs of passive aggression and respond in a timely manner to prevent other employees from being the victim of their vicious acts.
The truth is, it is not quite easy to point out passive-aggressive behavioural traits at first. People who showcase such behaviour tend to control and manipulate other people’s emotions and behaviours in many indirect ways. Key signs of passive aggression include:
- Stubbornness and being cynical
- Avoiding confrontation
- Not completing assigned tasks as per deadline
- Spreading rumours and speaking badly about others behind their back
Forbes has recognised the following as some of the prevalent passive-aggressive behaviour traits:
- Passive-aggressive employee often acts sly to get away from doing their daily tasks. They can use different techniques to burden their colleagues with their duties. For instance, they can claim to have hurt their arm or twisted their wrist in order to avoid writing a report or claim they lack the requisite skills to complete an assigned project.
- A passive-aggressive employee runs away from doing his/her job. Rather, they postpone their ongoing work to avoid getting new responsibilities. They often act lost or innocent, so the team leader lends them more time without questioning their contribution.
- Since a passive-aggressive employee always feels underestimated, he ends up spending most of his time plotting revenge against subordinates. He often participates in spreading nasty rumours about a co-worker or calls in sick to sabotage a group’s deadline. A passive-aggressive employee takes subtle and indirect aggressive actions like mocking or degrading team members. In fact, he will often show sweet behaviour in front of people he finds hard to like. Instead, he will passively resist completing routine social and occupational tasks. A passive-aggressive employee is known to express envy and resentment towards those who are apparently more fortunate. Such employees then use personal misfortune to get away with their toxic actions.
- It is certain that behaviours of passive-aggressive employees are complex and their causes are often deeply rooted in their way of coping with anxiety, stress, and personal insecurities. Here, it is necessary to understand the cause of such patterns to be able to deal with them effectively.
To nip passive-aggressive behaviour in the bud, it is necessary for team leaders to participate in effective goal setting. Misleading instruction, lack of clarity, and lack of acknowledgment of employees’ skill sets can render good goals worthless. The management must work hard to set expectations, limits, and deadlines in advance. It is seen that clearly defined goals and responsibilities allow employees to work as per the agreed points and have been said to have a positive effect on the success of employees and the organization as a whole.
According to HRReview, workers believe that colleagues who exhibit damaging behaviours are likely to not have benefitted from appropriate training. For many employees, since passive-aggressive behaviour stems from general work-related stress and poor communication skills, leaders and management need to invest in training to improve soft skills like communication and team building to help employees convey their message clearly without getting frustrated.
To address passive-aggressive behaviour, employees need support. Leaders should also concentrate on positive interaction, time management, communication, and problem-solving. Education and timely training can help in recognizing and redirecting these behaviours. Employees should be involved in leading training to lend them confidence and to make them believe that they can bring about a change.
Leaders need to be aware that their own behaviour may reflect passive-aggressive characteristics. For instance, one can ask his or her team, “What have we not talked about?” Or, “Would anyone like to share their opinions on this matter?” Leaders need to encourage two-way communication to help head off passive-aggressive patterns before their onset. As a leader, one can also hold discussions personally so that employees don’t feel embarrassed in front of their co-workers. By doing so, one is able to create a psychologically safe workplace where healthy, constructive problem-solving can thrive.
Technology in today’s era plays an important role in bridging the gap. It can be used to not only improve employee experience, but also to identify/predict the areas of concern before they blow out of proportion.
The organization, as a whole, needs to explore ways to improve and sustain its culture where every individual gets an equal opportunity to showcase his/her talents in a productive way.
- Dealing With Spoiled Employee at Work PassiveAggressive Behavior in Organizations Arundati Shinta, Amin Al Adib Proklamasi University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia and Hartosujono Sarjana Wiyata University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia