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Managing A Passive-Aggressive Person on Your Team

by Dianna Booher

Janet wore a smile from the nose down; her eyes bore daggers. If I offered a Friday afternoon off for having finished a big project early, she “wished” it had been last week when she and her husband were headed out of town for the football game.

When I ordered in pizza for everyone’s lunch to celebrate a staff anniversary, she had “hoped” for barbecue.

When I congratulated a three-person team on finishing a project our client had raved about, Janet dropped a note on my desk “just FYI” that her coworker Amy didn’t have anything to do with it—that she herself had completed the major part of the project without help.

When I announced that our company would continue to pay healthcare premiums for all employees, she smiled and “guessed” she’d be “penalized” because she already had coverage through her husband’s firm and would just “lose” that benefit that others in the company received. So I offered her the premium equivalent in cash. A few weeks later, when her husband lost his job and along with it his health coverage, Janet was back in my office asking for health coverage “like everyone else.”

Such is the scene in dealing with passive-aggressives.  Recognize this behavior around your office?

These individuals appear to act appropriately in any given situation––but they actually behave negatively and resist passively.  They often play the “victim.” Their passive-aggressive actions can range from mild to extreme.

Mild resistance:  making excuses for not doing, “forgetting,” blaming, “mis- understanding,” “teasing” remarks to hurt or let you know how they feel

          Extreme resistance:  sabotaging your success, blocking plans or results

In other words, they fear openly and directly communicating with you.  So they communicate their resistance covertly. And dealing with them is sheer misery—much like dealing with a terrorist. You never know when they’re about to strike—until the damage has been done.

Consider these tips in dealing with such an individual:

  • Understand that you can’t change them. Their complex, deep-rooted problem is best left in the hands of a psychologist or psychiatrist. Focus instead on your own take-charge attitude.  Determine not to become frazzled by their shenanigans.  Any tit-for-tat accusations on your part will just be met with denials and cries of “I’m the victim here.”
  • Invite their input.  Some passive-aggressive people behave as they do because they feel they have no voice. When possible, ask their opinion on solving problems. You do not need to agree or disagree with their opinions or complaints.  Tell them you’ll consider what they’ve said. Often, just inviting their input will satisfy them.
  • Keep your sense of humor if possible and if the negativity is not extreme.  Your passive-aggressive employee reports to you that your R&D plan seems flawed and it looks as though the product will be “at least 3 months late” for roll out. You smile and say, “Kevin, put on sunglasses and see if that flowchart looks any better. Or maybe we can highlight the spreadsheet in yellow and see if we get a brighter picture.” And then move ahead with your plans.
  • Document official communication.  If you have to interact with this person on an ongoing basis to get important things done, you can’t afford to let the situation “ride.” It will only intensify.  If you need to give instructions to this person or otherwise work with this supplier or strategic partner on a project, document actions in writing or have other people present for your discussions. Keep a written record and phone recordings of actions, who’s responsible for what, and deadlines.
  • State consequences for their behavior.  “Undercover” hostility and sabotage is the trademark of passive-aggressive people. When you confront these people with their behavior, they almost always will deny, make excuses, and blame other people.  Despite what they may say, state what YOU are going to do to move forward. Tell them the consequences they will be facing if they persist in this behavior.  Strongly stated, these consequences can compel them to stop obstructing and start cooperating.

If none of the above techniques work and you control the situation, you may have to end the relationship—terminate their employment, transfer them to another area, end a contract, or let someone else supervise them.

If you must continue to interact with this person, keep your distance as much as possible and maintain your composure while dealing with this challenging personality.

After all, leadership includes such challenges—covert hostility as well as open conflict.

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