By Angela Civitella

Do you know people who are frequently sarcastic? Do they tease others cruelly or put them down, either directly or behind their back? If so, do they then use the phrase, “just kidding,” to appear to lessen the blow?

Perhaps they respond to conflict by shutting others out and giving them the “silent treatment” rather than addressing issues head-on. Or maybe they pretend to accept responsibility for tasks, only to come up with excuses for not doing them later.

You may not immediately recognize these actions as aggressive — angry people typically use harsh words or lash out physically. However, they are examples of passive-aggressive behavior.

In this article, we’ll define passive aggression, explain why people might act in this way, describe the effect it can have in the workplace and suggest strategies for managing it.

According to the medical practice and research group at Mayo Clinic, passive-aggressive people tend to express their negative feelings harmfully, but indirectly. Instead of dealing with issues, they behave in ways that veil their hostility and mask their discontent.

If you’re not encouraged to be open and honest about your feelings from an early age, you might use passive-aggressive behavior as an alternative to addressing issues head-on. For example, you might sulk, withdraw from people emotionally or find indirect ways to communicate how you feel. People may act like this because they fear losing control, are insecure or lack self-esteem. They might do it to cope with stress, anxiety, depression or insecurity or to deal with rejection or conflict. Alternatively, they might do it because they have a grudge against a colleague or feel under-appreciated.

Identifying Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive people may mask their real feelings and claim that things are “fine”. Nevertheless, you can often spot when their actions subtly contradict their words. Some passive-aggressive people have a permanently negative attitude and regularly complain about the workplace or their colleagues. Instead of offering praise when it’s due, they typically downplay or ignore others’ achievements. They might also use sarcasm as a weapon to attack colleagues (pretending that they are joking) or spread harmful rumors.

Another common passive-aggressive behavior is to be disruptive. You may delegate a task to a team member that he doesn’t want to do, so he leaves it to the last moment and does it poorly. Or, he might shirk his responsibilities, such as by taking a sick day just before an important presentation, as a form of “retaliation.”

Passive-aggressive people often have difficulty taking responsibility for their own actions and blame others for their mistakes. You’ll find that issues at work, for example, are never their fault. Or, if they’re late for a meeting or don’t complete a project on time, it’s because of someone else.

How Passive Aggression Affects the Workplace

Passive-aggressive people’s negative behaviors can have serious consequences. For instance, if someone is consistently sending mixed messages about her intentions, you may find your team regularly misses its deadlines, which reflects badly on you. Perhaps she withholds instructions or other critical information to impede fellow team members’ progress and projects suffer as a result. Or team members may have to pick up her work regularly or are subject to her sarcastic comments. This can affect productivity, as well as breeding resentment and damaging morale.

Strategies for Managing Passive Aggressiveness

The suggestions below can help you control the negative behaviors of passive-aggressive team members:

Identify the behavior. The first step in addressing passive aggression is to recognize it, using the pointers above. This is often the most challenging part, as it can be subtle and therefore difficult to identify.

Deal with passive-aggressive behavior straight away, so that it doesn’t escalate. Make notes on situations as they occur, so that you have specific examples of what your team member has done, so he knows exactly what you’re talking about.

Create a safe environment. Next, let the person know that it’s safe for her to raise concerns and issues with you out in the open, rather in covert ways. Make it clear to her that, as a manager, you don’t “shoot messengers” and would rather she come to you with her problems rather than let them bubble under the surface.

You need to act in a way that aligns with this, for example, by encouraging, praising and supporting people who do bring matters to your attention.

Use language carefully. Give accurate feedback, and be careful with the language you use. For instance, instead of complaining that someone is “always” late, you’ll want to point out the exact times he’s arrived over the last week or so and give him an opportunity to explain why. You may then remind him when the workday starts and ask him to show up on time in the future.

Although it’s important to be direct and to address the issue head-on, try to avoid “you” statements. This will stop the other person from feeling attacked and becoming defensive. Instead, use first-person pronouns, such as “I”, “we” and “our,” and explain the effect that his behavior has had on you and your team. For instance, you might say, “I noticed that the report was two days late,” instead of, “You failed to meet the deadline.”

Stay calm. You may make the situation worse if you react emotionally to your team member. She may feel threatened, withdraw further and become even more entrenched in her negative behaviors. Speak to her in a measured, even tone and remain composed. She might not even realize she’s being passive-aggressive, so you might want to use an empathic approach to defuse any anxiety and anger. However, if she is repeatedly behaving in this way, and you’ve raised the issue in the past, you may need to be firmer and consider disciplinary action.

Identify the cause. If passive-aggressive people claim that they are “fine” when their behavior suggests otherwise, don’t accept their answers at face value. Probe more deeply by asking questions to identify the root of the problem. Give them the opportunity to explain themselves, but don’t let them pass the blame.

For instance, if someone seems to be responding negatively to a disappointing work decision — perhaps he got passed over for promotion — ask him if his behavior stems from this. Explain that you want to understand how he feels, and work with him to explore other ways that he might handle the situation more constructively. For example, he might improve a particular skill, so that he has a better chance of promotion next time.

Set clear standards and consequences. If your team member deflects your feedback, for example by saying your standards are too high or that she didn’t realize what your expectations were, she may be trying to divert attention away from herself. You need to establish clear standards, and regularly reiterate what you want from her, so that you can hold her to account. It’s also important to explain that her negative behavior will not be tolerated and set out the consequences of what will happen if she does step out of line again.

Open up channels of communication. Passive-aggressive people often lack good communication skills, because they struggle to express their emotions openly. They may prefer to send emails, rather than address issues face-to-face, for example. When this is the case, encourage them to develop the skills and confidence to speak to others directly.

Apply this to your life. As a leader, it’s important to be aware of the signs of passive aggression. If you realize that you engage in these behaviors, step back and try to figure out why. Then, take immediate steps to correct it. After all, your team members likely look to you as a role model for how to act in the workplace. For example, if you have difficulty confronting your team about problems, you might want to consider taking an assertiveness course.

Angela Civitella is a real estate executive, business leadership coach and the founder of Intende, a business coaching service for entrepreneurs and executives.

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