Sun. May 26th, 2024

Passive-aggressive behavior can result in toxic work environments.


Have you ever had to deal with a sarcastic co-worker? Or maybe you’ve asked your colleagues for feedback only to find later that they gossiped or spread rumors behind your back. Seventy percent of Americans are facing unprecedented levels of passive-aggressive behavior at work. That’s according to research commissioned by Go1 and conducted by OnePoll. The survey of 2,000 employed adults finds that 69% agree it has become a workplace problem. In addition, nearly half (48%) of respondents believe these negative behaviors have increased since the pandemic. Some of the most common passive-aggressive behaviors include talking behind co-workers’ backs, resentment, silence, sarcasm and dishonesty.

Passive-aggressive behavior can occur in person or through email, text, Slack and other instant messaging channels. Some may even view certain workplace trends like “Quiet Firing” or “Quiet Quitting” as passive-aggressive ways of dealing with challenging work environments. One reason for the potential increase in this behavior is the rise of remote work. If you’re trying to avoid direct conflict, it’s easier to express subtle sarcasm when you’re not forced to communicate face to face. Another reason may be that companies are still struggling to rebuild company culture now that employees are more geographically dispersed.

If left untreated, passive-aggressive behavior can result in toxic work environments, increased stress levels and declining productivity. To break the cycle, here are five healthy ways to address it.

Look for subtle signs

By its very nature, passive-aggressive behavior can be subtle. Look for red flags like a co-worker “forgetting” to send you information on an important project or giving you the silent treatment. Other signs include sarcasm, gossiping behind your back, procrastinating or missing deadlines. If the behavior happens once or twice, it may be harmless. But if you see a pattern forming over time, it’s time to deal with it head-on.

Deal with it directly

If you notice a colleague or employee showing signs of passive-aggressive behavior, deal with it directly. Set up time to speak with them face to face and avoid using “you” statements. That way, the other person will not feel attacked and become defensive. Instead, explain their behavior’s effect on the team using specific examples. Stay calm and let them know that you’re on their side. In many cases, they may be unaware of their behavior and its effect on the organization.

Identify the cause

Approach the conversation with empathy and ask questions to identify the underlying cause of the issue. For example, if an employee is frustrated because they are being left out of specific meetings, explain why they were not included. Or maybe their co-worker was recently promoted when they felt they deserved the job. By understanding the person’s motivations, you might be able to offer an effective solution.

Implement soft skills training

Passive-aggressive behavior often stems from a lack of communication skills. According to Ashleigh Loughnan, chief people officer at Go1, the solution is soft skills training. “The recruitment and onboarding processes are very important, but also reinforcing the message through practice and behaviors thereafter is essential. If people are better equipped with soft skills, it can help solve the problem before it begins,” says Loughnan. Soft skills generally refer to areas like communication, leadership and problem-solving. With more companies shifting to hybrid or remote work models, soft skills are even more essential.

Maintain an open communication channel

People who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior have difficulty expressing themselves openly. To inspire a positive change, encourage feedback and open dialogue. Let them know that they can contact you via email, Slack or other channels during the day if needed. By encouraging two-way communication, you create a psychologically safe workplace that fosters collaboration and creative problem-solving.

Working with passive-aggressive co-workers can feel like walking a tightrope. On the one hand, you want to confront the issue head-on, but you also don’t want to alienate the people you work with. Most importantly, don’t fall into the same behavior as a retaliation tactic. By taking the high road, you’ll be more likely to foster a team atmosphere that supports transparency and constructive feedback.

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