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When the Passive-Aggressive Co-worker Is You


Many of us are not comfortable with confrontation. That’s a problem in the workplace, where communication is key. Fail to deal with conflict honestly, and you might wind up sabotaging a project … or even your whole career. Here’s how to recognize these tendencies in yourself and deal with them.

(Photo Credit: Okko Pyykko/Flickr)

Signe Whitson is Psychology Today‘s expert on passive-aggressive behavior. She explains that one reason for passive-aggressive behavior is that anger is socially unacceptable in our culture. However, it is also a normal human emotion. Many people receive the message growing up that “anger is bad,” and this results in them squashing their emotions instead of learning to express anger in appropriate ways. These individuals learn to express anger in subtle ways that are easier to deny.

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For example, you realize you never got an important message. A passive-aggressive co-worker who is angry at you never gave you the information. When this comes to light, she says, “Oh, I’m sorry! I thought I told you!” If this happens once, you may not be the victim of sabotage. Paranoia isn’t helpful, either. But if this person seems to hinder your productivity on a consistent basis, you are likely dealing with passive aggression.

Learning to handle the passive-aggressive behavior of others at work is necessary. But what about when we feel afraid to express our own anger to our bosses? Anger may be unacceptable, but your boss may be upsetting you by giving you too much work. You don’t complain and you don’t express your negative emotions, so he keeps piling it on.

Don’t fall into the trap. As resentment builds inside of you, it gets tempting to find a way to change the situation. If you are not comfortable with conflict, you may end up deliberately not completing work, or doing something that makes your boss look bad. Having these tendencies does not make you a bad person, but if you feel this way, you may improve your communication skills.

1. Recognize Anger

Recognize your own anger and admit it to yourself. You may be feeling angry because you perceive others as slacking, and your boss gives you all the unfinished tasks because you are hardworking and productive.

You may feel like giving your co-workers the silent treatment, or gossiping to one colleague about being lazy. These tactics are inadvisable.

2. Utilize Direct Communication

Direct communication is extremely difficult for people with passive-aggressive tendencies. However, it is exactly what you need to learn to do. Take a very deep breath before informing your boss that you feel overworked. He probably has no idea that you are angry, so screaming or crying will surprise him, and will also be inappropriate. Also, don’t make it about everybody else being lazy. Make sure he understands you feel as if you are completing the work of others, but don’t name names. Keep the focus on how much work you are being asked to do.

If you are part of a team and you feel burdened, you may bring this up calmly in a meeting. “I am doing these three tasks, what are you guys doing?” Is a good way to broach a direct conversation about how much work each team member is responsible for.

Once you start looking at your own tendencies to brush aside anger, you can start working on dealing with anger directly. As you do this, you will likely recognize the passive-aggressive behavior of others in your workplace. As Whitson teaches us, these patterns are extremely common, but that does not make them any less dysfunctional. Help yourself by learning to communicate directly and appropriately about things that make you feel angry.

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How comfortable are you expressing anger in the workplace? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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I was told that I have a unclaimed stimulus checks.

Abdur Rehaman
Abdur Rehaman

I completely agree that directly communicating any problem is the best solution (personal/professional). Simple reason is that every human has a distinct character and looks at things differently therefore if we find something unconvincing we need to bring it out. Of course to master the way of communicating directly, experience is the only teacher.

John Masilo
John Masilo

I tend to struggle with passive aggression myself. However, i am not the gossipy type, so it takes a while for me to let out what bothering me. I am always more worried about the next person rather than consider the impact the situation is having on me. Although I consider myself a reasonably good communicator, speaking out does not come out naturally. I think these tendencies are cultivated by culture in which I was brought up in. I was… Read more »


This is a great article.

Neil Warner

Some times, there are several people using passive aggressive behaviors. It can be the boss, or your team mate, and it can always damage your career or your reputation or your degree of satisfaction on the job.

Is great to be able to identify these games and know how to react….protecting yourself from what others can do which could impact you. Here is a book with strategies to manage others in the workplace:




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