How to Keep Passive-Aggressive Behavior From Derailing Your Employee Engagement and Retention Efforts

What is passive-aggressive behavior, why is it on the rise, and how does it hurt your small business? Here are tips for how to identify and handle it.

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How to Keep Passive-Aggressive Behavior From Derailing Your Employee Engagement and Retention Efforts

Here's what you need to know:

  • A survey revealed that passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace is increasing
  • Although passive-aggressive behavior appears outwardly harmless, it’s psychologically classified as a form of aggression
  • In the workplace, PA employees deliberately try to manipulate or control managers and coworkers
  • This deceptive behavior can contribute to a toxic work environment
  • To deal with passive-aggressive behavior among employees, try getting to the root of the problem in a friendly but firm way

Bad behavior isn’t usually hard to spot. When someone lies, steels, cheats, or harms another living being, society wants the bad behavior to stop, and the guilty person apprehended before more damage is done.

But not all unacceptable behavior is easy to recognize, making the harm it does difficult to detect. Passive-aggressive (PA) behavior falls into this category. This misconduct is more common in the workplace than you may know and is on the rise, according to recent studies.

So, what is passive-aggressive behavior, why is it on the rise, and how does it hurt your small business (SMB)?

What is the definition of passive-aggressive behavior?

Simplypsychology.org describes PA behavior as: “indirect resistance to the demands of others and avoidance of direct confrontation.”

Although the behavior appears outwardly harmless, it’s psychologically classified as a form of aggression. Actions that seem to be avoiding confrontation are, in fact, hiding a range of emotions that can be destructive.

Passive-aggressive people express their anger or frustration covertly or indirectly.

PA people express their anger or frustration covertly, or indirectly, mostly through stubborn, sullen, critical, inefficient, revengeful, and procrastinating tactics.

In the workplace, PA employees deliberately try to manipulate or control managers and coworkers. They won’t openly discuss why they’re annoyed, angry, or feeling hostile but they fear inviting blowback if they do. This deceptive behavior can contribute to a toxic work environment.

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How do passive-aggressive actions occur?

PA people are known to take out their anger or hostility out on others by:

  • Backing out of promises they’ve made but never intended to fulfill in the first place.
  • Ignoring certain people’s phone calls out of spite.
  • Inviting all but one member of a group to an activity out of revenge.

These actions occur in a variety of situations. But the workplace is where PA behaviors can be as widespread as they are harmful. The culprits can be executives, managers, supervisors, and employees.

PA behavior in the workplace

PA behavior isn’t just actions, it often includes insults and snide remarks.

Here are typical comments that occur at work:

  • Saying something hurtful to someone and then pretending the comment was a joke when the targeted person reacts. Ex. “I was only joking when I called you knucklehead.”
  • Backhanded compliments. Insulting others without appearing to be mean-spirited. Ex. “You finally got a hairstyle that looks good on you.”
  • Wistfulness. Not asking for something openly but using insults to express resentment and anger in a subtle way. Ex. “I would like to own a big house like yours, but I’m not paid enough.”
  • Excuses. Giving false reasons for not doing something instead of openly addressing the real root of the problem.

PA actions that can upend positive workplace relationships are:

  • Using the silent treatment to spite or punish someone by not responding to the person or engaging in an argument.
  • Pretending nothing is wrong to avoid dealing directly and openly with a personal issue. Ex. “Everything’s fine.”
  • Withholding. Holding back on giving something that a person normally receives out of spite, revenge, or punishment. Refusing to give someone a pay increase or recognition for a job well done are examples of withholding behavior.
  • Silent inaction. Not performing a task when asked, expected, or ordered to instead of outright saying no. This behavior also is known as “indirect refusal.”
  • This state of mind turns into PA behavior when the moody person ’s sulkiness is obvious to others but there’s no self-admission of a problem. Another example of moodiness is expressing outrage or bitterness by missing deadlines or failing to follow through on a task.
  • Fake helplessness. Pretending to be incapable of doing an undesirable task to avoid being asked to do it again.
  • Delaying or leaving tasks unfinished out of anger.
  • Using tardiness, something that’s not necessarily tied to PA, as a weapon for nonchalantly creating havoc. Showing up late for meetings with no apology or show of remorse is an example of PA behavior.
  • Ghosting. Suddenly cutting off communication with others that were once associates. Ghosting may seem like a new phenomenon, but it’s a longstanding example of PA behavior.

Behavior this deceptive and potentially damaging must have a root cause. Knowing how and why people adopt PA behavior is a first step in minimizing its negative impact on the workplace.

What are the causes of passive-aggressive behavior?

Psychologists characterize PA behavior as deep-rooted and complicated. They cite 6 possible reasons for the destructive conduct:

  1. Family history. A domineering parent or sibling, competition in the home for approval or attention, and power struggles over obedience or personal identity among family members are possible causes of the PA person’s behavior.
  2. A witness to PA misconduct. The PA person may have witnessed the same behavior from a dominant family member who hid, or let simmer, difficult sentiments like anger, defensiveness, hurt, frustration, and resentment.
  3. Dominant influencer. A family member, teacher, romantic partner, colleague, or community leader of a different gender who’s influence on the PA person was massive. The influencer may have resisted, fought, froze, or gone into denial when challenged.
  4. Gender conflict. A female PA person may have grown up with domineering male figures in male-dominated environments at home, school, or work.
  5. Social challenges. The PA person may have been made fun of or judged on appearance, intellect, physical or social ability, or speech. These types of criticisms could still be happening to the PA person.
  6. Societal constraints. The PA person may have been denied freedom of expression, a condition that often stems from racism, gender bias, religious discrimination, and other biased societal controls.

PA’s causes are sobering but so is the rise in the behavior in the workplace, as a study recently found.

Passive-aggressive behavior is increasing in workplaces

A OnePoll survey of 2,000 employed adults revealed that PA behavior in the workplace is increasing. Ashleigh Loughnan, chief people officer at Go1, a digital learning platform that commissioned the poll, described PA in the workplace as worse now than ever before since the pandemic set in, the Great Resignation started, and employees resurrected quiet quitting.

Survey participants cited the most common types of PA behavior as:

  • Talking behind the backs of coworkers (54%), which was more visible among executives
  • Resentment and complaints (50%)
  • The silent treatment (49%)
  • Sarcasm (42%), which was more common among entry-level staff
  • Dishonesty (37%)

The survey also revealed that:

  • PA behavior was more likely to occur face-to-face (47%).
  • The behavior also occurred in emails or online messages (41%).
  • Most participants admitted to resorting to PA behavior themselves (68%).
  • PA behavior stemmed from work-driven stress (18%), frustration with coworkers (16%), and poor communication skills (12%).

The survey results break down in detail how PA behavior operates in the workplace. But the toll it takes on employees’ relationships, emotional well-being, and productivity is why employers can’t afford to let it fester.

What’s the toll of passive-aggressive behavior on the workplace?

Employee relationships deteriorate when PA behavior is out of control. The toxic work environment it creates can make engaging and retaining workers a monumental task.

Employees are engaged or disengaged at various times throughout their careers. This makes engagement harder to pinpoint, according to Applauz, a Canadian-based software firm. Add PA behavior to the mix and engagement may be even more difficult to achieve.

A toxic work environment forces employees to seek more satisfying work elsewhere.

With engagement at risk, so is retention. A toxic work environment forces employees to seek more satisfying work elsewhere.

Also, PA behavior is contagious. The reaction to PA words and actions is often more PA behavior. Employees may eventually think PA behavior is normal, even when they find it uncomfortable or threatening.

What are tips for clamping down passive-aggressive behavior?

Central to PA behavior is using unhealthy communication tactics to hide frustration and comply with employers’ preference for avoiding confrontation at work. This conflict just reinforces PA behavior.

Idealist.org recommends these steps for getting PA behavior in check:

  • Take time to confront PA employees.
  • Try not to have the conversation where others can overhear it.
  • Be calm and specific about identifying the PA behavior and avoid using accusatory language such as “you’re always calling in sick and missing meetings.”
  • Point out one or more times when the behavior derailed an assignment and why it’s a constant problem.
  • Try getting to the root of the problem in a friendly but firm way by asking what motivated the behavior and why the person is angry or hostile.
  • Rise above the PA person’s anger, even if you’ve caused the problem, and leave your emotions out of the discussion to create a safe place for discussing and resolving the problem.
  • Suggest ways to come up with better solutions to the problem such as talking with others about it or reaching out to HR.

For more on preventing a toxic workplace, check out this post: 5 Ways Leaders Become Toxic and How to Deal With It.

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