Passive aggressive behaviour is essentially a situation where someone is deliberately choosing to not help, co-operate or engage with others because they are angry and yet choose not to express their anger.

Passive aggressive behaviour takes many forms but it is essentially a situation where someone is deliberately choosing to not help, co-operate or engage with others because they are angry and yet choose not to express their anger. Instead of communicating honestly that you feel upset, annoyed, irritated or disappointed, you contain your feelings, shut off verbally, become obstructive, and put up a polite “stone-wall” of non-co-operation. One writer described it as “sugar coated hostility.” In one to one relationships passive aggressiveness is where one party says there is “no problem” but underneath there is a real issue that they are refusing to surface or discuss. Over time, relationships can really suffer as the fundamental problem lingers on without resolution.

A frequent problem

In the corporate world, passive aggressive behaviours are a frequent problem; often existing in poor working relationships and dysfunctional teams. Typically, the language people use to describe the behavior is more judgmental and emotive; She’s being her usual self! What’s his problem again? He’s always so negative! As usual they’ve not delivered! I can’t stand her attitude! The reason for some of these negative comments is that the behaviours frequently involve directly or indirectly resisting requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issues. You might hear people saying things such as:

  • There is no problem!
  • I’m fine with everything
  • No, I’m perfectly happy with the process or situation
  • The situation is more complicated than that!
  • I don’t think we fully understand the issues involved!
  • We need to do much more work or research on this problem!
  • I don’t think you are reading the situation correctly!
  • We may need to also look at x to get this right

In effect people who are passive aggressive and using these types of comments are actively choosing to not go along with certain approaches or directions. As such their comments and behaviours can either be covert (concealed and hidden) or overt (blatant and obvious).

In terms of responses to specific task requests, passive aggressive behaviours typically involve:

  • Opposition,
  • Procrastination,
  • Forgetfulness,
  • Stubbornness,
  • Negative attitudes,
  • Resentment,
  • 'Forgetting' to do something,
  • Chronic lateness,
  • Intentional inefficiency,
  • Withholding information or praise, or
  • Giving others “the silent treatment.”

Such behaviours frequently explain delays in executing tasks or actioning requests made by legitimate authority figures and over time they can be very damaging to a team’s productivity, creativity and sense of unity.

The big challenge

The big challenge of course is that a passive aggressive person does not overtly show that they are angry or resentful. They can in some circumstances often appear to be outwardly, polite, friendly, diplomatic, supportive and even in agreement with you. However, underneath there is some form of negative manipulation going on. So “passive aggressive” behaviour is not at all easy to deal with. Some people have mastered it well and even persistent and well intentioned approaches to surface the issues will still be met with the same response – “No I’m perfectly OK”

Some Strategies for Dealing with Persistent Passive Aggressive People

Spend less time with them as they will typically sap a lot of your energy. Work with them when you need to, but don’t indulge them. Be professional and respectful when communicating with them. Where possible listen to their views and try to get them to come up with solutions but don’t waste too much time with them if they refuse to reveal the cause of their anger. Remember that ultimately passive aggressive behaviour is a form of hostility so recognise it as such and deal with it.

Don’t seek to change them. The most stupid thing to do with another person is to try and change them! So just be absolutely clear what you want and need from them and work to achieve that aim. Avoid making vague or unclear agreements with them and focus purely on what you need to get from them to do the job

Be very DETAILED and SPECIFIC when dealing with the individual. Limit the individual’s ability to get out of commitments and agreements. Formalise all your communications with them. Issue specific details on your precise needs and set out clear boundaries whilst maintaining a record of all agreements, timelines and deadlines.

Have witnesses to any key discussions, so if they try to “wriggle” out of previous commitments you can confront on the details by reference to previous agreements where third parties were present. You need to be able to substantiate previous agreements and commitments, so having all the facts enables you to challenge. Also consider challenging with other involved parties in the room as basis of further legitimising your approach.

Choose your language carefully. When a passive aggressive person reneges on an agreed action avoid using language such as “You have not done x or y etc.!” The power of “You have not done’ can easily provoke defensive reactions. Instead use language such as:

  • I was quite clear from this note what “I“ expected and as I noted “we” agreed that it was possible within the allotted time
  • Let’s review what has not been done, in the time we previously agreed.
  • Do you recall this note I sent you on x that sets out what we agreed we would do?
  • Did we not agree at the meeting of x that the following actions…..would take place?

Set out consequences for the continued failure to co-operate. Use your executive power to press home your unwillingness to put up with the behaviours in future.

Providing people with a negative consequence for displaying any undesired behaviours is an effective approach to getting them to think about changing their approach. Consider what consequences you can give the individual for failing to surface their problem or simply co-operate with legitimate requests e.g.

  • I don’t see the need for you to attend that meeting in future!
  • I am asking x to now take over that piece of work
  • I don’t want you to spend any more time working on y I have decided it is better if you focus on x going forward
  • I am redirecting resources away from A to B
  • I have decided I will chair that review/project
  • You will need to present and explain this to the xyz project board
  • I am going to put you in a different role for the future

Finally remember that such is the nature of “passive aggressive” behavior that you can be made to feel you are the problem but keep in mind that if your intentions and actions are genuine then the ultimate problem is not you, but the other person. Good Luck


About the Author

Mark Thomas: Leading International Expert on Business Partnering

Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is an international business consultant, author and speaker specialising in business planning, managing change, human resource management and executive development. Prior to working with PPI he worked for several years with Price Waterhouse in London where he advised on the business and organisational change issues arising out of strategic reviews in both private and public sector organisations.