At the workplace around each of us, there are people with whom relations seem to be more like a roller coaster. Sometimes we can talk to them easily and sometimes we are suddenly confronted with their reticence and even hostility. The reason for such behavior is aggression, i.e. a way of expressing anger. Even the most shy and quiet person cannot claim that he or she never showed aggressive emotions in public. Indeed, in reasonable doses aggression is needed to cope with traffic jams, ‘burning’ projects and recalcitrant partners; but there are such forms of aggression that are difficult to identify and therefore very difficult to overcome. Among these forms, passive aggression is the most sophisticated and destructive one.
Passive-aggressive behavior is a manner of behavior when a person expresses passive resistance to the negative remarks of the opponent and thus reaches his or her goals. People who prefer passive-aggressive way of communication do not to speak out against what they do not like (Frank, 2010). Their accumulated tension that requires output is manifested through the refusal to perform any action. This manner of behavior becomes aggressive due to the fact that “no” is expressed not clearly but passively. The main danger of the passive aggression at work is that it worsens office morale and discipline by undermining authority and apart from that it decreases productivity and disrupts the normal flow of work (Whitson, 2013).
One of the examples demonstrating the passive-aggressive behavior at work is an employee who is telling his boss a phrase similar to the following: “I did not know that you meant that I have to do this task now.” This phrase is one of the favorites among procrastinators who tend to constantly postpone for later unpleasant thoughts and deeds. If a person is given the task that he or she does not really want to do, this person will delay its execution by all available means. Accordingly, if asked, whether he or she has fulfilled the assigned tasks, the standard excuse is: “I did not know that you meant to do it now!” This phrase means that the task is unpleasant for the employee, that he or she is unlikely to quickly execute it even after numerous reminders, and that it is definitely the task that makes him or her angry.
The main characteristics of a passive aggressor are: he or she postpones things until it is too late; does not fulfil promises, “forgets” about the agreements, and avoids emotional closeness; denies everything and turns everything upside down making other people guilty; expresses his or her position unclearly, and causes confusion; pays no attention; sends mixed signals: for example, talks about certain things, but does completely different ones; never apologizes (Long, Long and Whitson, 2008). For a person suffering from passive aggression, it is important to understand that this way of behavior destroys relationships with other people, has a negative effect on his or her image at work and even influences badly his or her own body (Frank, 2010). Perhaps the best way to solve the problem of passive-aggressive behavior is to try to go through the internal pain and disbelief.
Long et al. in their book (2008) offer four strategies for effective interaction with the passive aggressor. The first one is to recognize the signals of passive-aggressive behavior in advance: it can be procrastination, ignoring, silence, avoiding discussion of the problems, gossip. The second one is not to give in to provocations. Subliminal goal of the passive aggressor is to make his or her opponent angry as well. Thus when a person interacting with a passive aggressor starts to feel that he or she is starting to become angry, it is necessary to try to express negative emotions calmly, for example: “I am not going to cry, because it will only aggravate the situation”. Another strategy is to indicate the passive aggressor specifically at the anger that he or she feels; such people typically ignore this particular emotion. The opinion has to be validated by the specific fact such as: “I think you are angry at me now because I asked you do something”. One more strategy is to accept the resistance. The goal is to make a person outwardly express anger that he or she hides deep inside. As soon as the presence of this emotion almost becomes apparent the passive aggressor begins to deny its existence. As soon as he or she does, it is necessary to say: “Good! It is just the way I felt and I decided to share my opinion with you”. It is not necessary to argue and to prove anything. The case can be ‘closed’ for the moment but the colleague will understand that he/she and his/her emotions are treated with respect and perhaps next time he or she will decide not to hide them – then it will be easier to find the ways to cooperate more effectively.
Long, N.J., Long, J.E. & Whitson, S. (2008). The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. Austin, Texas: Pro-ed.
Frank, M.A. (2010). Crazy-Makers: Passive-Aggressive People. Retrieved from: http://www.excelatlife.com/print/crazy-makers.htm
Whitson, S. (2013). Why Passive Aggression Thrives in the Workplace. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/passive-aggressive-diaries/201306/why-passive-aggression-thrives-in-the-workplace