Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is Your Co-worker Passive-Aggressive?

Is your co-worker always "forgetting" things and running late to everything from scheduled meetings to lunch dates? Does he or she say one thing but do another? Are you suspecting this person is angry but you can't quite put your finger on the how, or the why?

Welcome to the wonderful world of the passive-aggressive co-worker, who on the surface seems happy to help but underneath the surface is dragging his or her feet. This employee can't exhibit anger directly and lacks necessary Life 101 confrontational skills, and so he or she takes it out on you in subtler ways. Oh, did I say I'd get that report to you by 3 p.m.? Oh, I must have forgotten. I'm not finding your email anywhere on my computer. Are you sure you sent it to me? You said 11:30? Why did I think we were having lunch at 12:15? Why are you always making me late?

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You are quite sure, however, that you said (more than once, by the way) that lunch was going to be at 11:30. Unfortunately, this example is on a long list of strange behavior, from being subjected to the silent treatment for God knows what to watching this employee complain endlessly about a co-worker behind her back after being super nice to her face. This co-worker is starting to make you feel a little bit crazy inside. You know something bigger is going on, but you can't quite pin it down. Then you put two and two together: This co-worker is passive-aggressive.

But when you call these employees out on their office-related mind games, they are immediately offended that you would accuse them of such behavior. Why would you think I'd ever do that? You're my co-worker and my friend and I can't believe you would say that to me! The employee might even walk away while you're in mid-sentence. This employee has a curious way of making you feel like you're the one at fault in any given situation and is very good at strumming your guilty chords. He or she is always the victim. If it weren't for you and your inability to schedule lunch 45 minutes late, the employee would have been on time.

It's hard enough dealing with passive-aggressive friends or relatives, but it can be even worse trying to deal with this behavior on the job where good teamwork and communication are vital to progress. The passive-aggressive employee's communication style is circuitous at best, perhaps relying heavily on instant messaging and email. When you think about it, he or she seems to hide behind these electronic walls whenever possible. Why would this co-worker email you when it would be just as easy to walk ten feet over to your cubicle, stop you in the hallway or pick up the phone?

Because direct confrontation isn't their style, silly. You'd think that a direct paper trail would help you make your case, but this co-worker is ready to talk circles around you and to justify his or her behavior as being, well, someone else's fault somehow.

Chances are good the employee has been acting this way from a young age, too. So how do you deal with a passive-aggressive co-worker effectively? First, go online and take a few minutes to read up on this behavior. Second, start listening more closely to these employees, because most likely their work talk is peppered with weasel words from "I'll try" to "I'll get back to you." In other words, non-committal verbiage that makes it easier for them to slip away and make excuses down the line.

When you confront these employees about their passive-aggressive behavior, stay very calm and stick to the facts. If you think the employee intentionally did something -- like making you look bad in a meeting, for example -- never let your emotions take over. Instead, you might say something like, "Hi, I'm just wondering why you said such-and-such in the meeting this morning." Simple, forward, direct but never, ever screamingly confrontational. The employee will deny any ill intentions of course -- heck, the employee may deny even saying it -- but now is your chance to say how it made you feel awkward and/or confused and you hope it won't happen again because you want to be able to work well together.

The employee will either respond with sweetness and light ("I'm sorry you feel that way, you're one of my favorite co-workers!") or stand there flummoxed, stammering and searching for someone to blame. Either way, you've let this co-worker know that you're onto his or her subtly sabotaging ways and you're willing to say something (politely) when it happens. This revelation could move the ground underneath the passive-aggressive employee, who will likely think twice before shaking your proverbial tree in a meeting ever again.

You can actually play a big part in helping the passive-aggressive co-worker undo years of learned bad behaviors simply by calmly and methodically pulling him or her back toward a healthy communication pattern. Refuse to play the employee's game. When this person keeps sending you terse emails from ten feet away, walk over and respond in person every so often just to help him or her get in the habit of dealing more directly with people. You might not believe it, but this employee really needs you. Day in and day out, you're the one setting a good example of proper behavior and effective human interaction. So keep doing what you're doing. And who knows? Maybe the employee will start showing up for lunch on time after all.

35 comments:

  1. Haha! What a lot of nonsense. Passive Aggressive co-workers aren't looking for opportunities to learn from your exammple. If they clue in that you see them for the little shits they are, look out because they will target you and try to get rid of you to protect their little racket. Chances are they have cronies and cohorts who will assist them. These people are usually indicative of a larger problem with clueless managers who have let this behaviour go unchecked for years.

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    1. Oh... wow! This is sooooo true! I work in a prison and this is sooooo relevant, especially with the female workers!

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    2. It must be the prison atmosphere because I can relate completely. Our secretary is P-A, she was recently caught not doing her job and skated by with a lame excuse. Supervisors are clueless and allow it to happen. I'm considered the office b*tch because I won't allow her to get away with it and she plays everyone against each other.

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    3. I completely agree. I have been working with someone for years who is passive agressive, yet a bully at the same time - and no, she doesn't act alone. Any attempt I have made to have ber behavior addressed, has been ignored. Addressing her directly is not an option and results in her crying and feeling attacked or she turns into a vengeful b---. Anyway, point being, these types are not easy to deal with!

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    4. I agree as well. Our secretary is passive agressive and very subtle. Our boss once tried to reprimand her once for her emails, but she managed to make it all about respect for her... very dangerous personality and yes, will make you look bad at every change...

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  2. HA! You are totally right! Couldn't have described it better!

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    1. I too work with a passive-agressive person. I need her work done by the end of the week to send in with mine for a weekly report. The more I ask her to have it done by Friday, the more she talks to co-workers and doesn't do it , putting it off until the last minute. I told her it would be easier to do daily and she wouldn't have to do it all on Friday because anthing could happen and she might not get it in. Well, guess what? She waited until Friday and didn't show up herself so there you go! Then she twist my words and told a co-worker I said she didn't do anything who was mad at me. I am thinking why would I say that? Why would she believe it? But my passive- aggressive co-worker smiled evil like after she came back from telling her and it was almost scary! Are these people capable of harming people?

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  3. I agree with the two comments above. Imagining that these coworkers are lost souls looking for your guidance is ridiculous. They enjoy getting under people's skin. It's fun for them. Just do your job, be professional, keep paper trails, shrug these people off as much as possible, and don't rely on managers for help.

    Like Anon Feb 14 said, managers are clueless...or they are powerless or they are are in on it too. The longer I've been in the workforce, the more I realize some people are genuinely evil and there's not much good in complaining to the higher ups. It only puts you on their radar as somebody who's having "issues" with someone else. That's not the name you want to make for yourself.

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    1. You must work at my job because this is a brief description of it! I think that higher-ups are not always very smart and so many things go on right under their noses! It is tough to just do your job around passive-agressives; taking notes about their behavior is time-consuming and the fact is most people have more on their plates (more work to do in the first place) than passive-agressives, why is that?

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    2. You're absolutely right. Doing your job, not to mention maintaining your calm, in the face of a constant lack of professionalism is extremely difficult. And it's unfair. Work shouldn't include this whole other layer of unnecessary BS.

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  4. Even if your co-worker is devilishly passive-aggressive and probably won't change, it doesn't mean you can't set a good example through your own behavior. That's what I'm getting at. You may not have a good interaction pattern with this employee, but it doesn't mean you have to let their behavior change your interactions with your other co-workers and your boss.

    At the end of the day, you can't control the passive-aggressive employee, but you CAN show the other people in your company that you are a professional and how a professional SHOULD act. You can let your passive-aggressive co-worker either make you angry and unprofessional or strengthen your resolve to be a good example for everyone around you. Just my opinion.

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    1. you do realize all you've said here is ignore them, let them do it, without repercussion

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    2. I agree, I work with a woman who is evil, but always the victim. The worse part is she is best friends with one boss and the administrative assistant to the other who completely feels sorry for her. No one else sees it and I'm completely shocked at how stupid people are. She can actually play victim, bully, and always talk her way out of anything! Its gross to say the least. I have to share an office with her and it sucks! Can't people just go to work and go home without drama at work. I'm there to make money, not friends.

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    3. Amen. I want to go to work and make money not friends! This happens at my work place and it pisses me off I got this b hired. I felt bad because she needed a home for her children but now she's turned me into the person with the problem. But i have none and leave everyone alone. No wonder this chick always has many boyfRiends. Once they find out how evil she is theyre gone. I have the feeling this one guy who also doesn't like me is sleeping with her. They recently went on a trip together just them two to party and it was weird because he's married but his wife stayed home with their son.

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  5. Having been the target of a group of passive aggressive coworkers I can tell you that they are cowards when confront but don't hesitate to backstab you to the boss when you aren't around. Good advise above is to just do you job, be polite, don't let their behavior drag you down because they will never change/stop but you can change your reaction to them as in -- don't react to them.

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  6. I very much agree, Anonymous 7:19 AM. It's easy to get pulled into their mental muck and turn their passive-aggressive behavior back on them. Overall, you have little chance of changing them (we're talking about a deeply-ingrained learned behavior here) but you can control your own reaction to them. Don't play the game, set a good example in your own communication style, and be the change you want to see. The passive-aggressive co-worker wants a big reaction out of you. Don't give it to them.

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  7. Yes,I'm going to try this tomorrow...not giving them a reaction. I have to do something. I called in to work today, just so I wouldn't have to deal with these people. I know it sounds horrible, but it's getting to the point where I'm almost praying for their deaths! And, oh, do they want a reaction, those backstabbing jerks! I would love to feel safe within a healthy work environment, so I'm going to pray for it this evening before bed. I need all the help I can get.

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    1. I realized today that I think I've died and went to hell. And my personal hell is work and high school mixed into one place.

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    2. Bingo! That describes it exactly!

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    3. Wow... I'm learning so much about how to deal with a P-A coworker... Thanks! I do maintain a professional attitude on the outside but inside I am tense, nervous and almost sick every day that I have to work with "her". Each of "her" subtle acts of aggression could individually be written off (and are by management) but when you start stacking them up.... it just becomes too much. Telling the boss or other coworkers doesn't do any good because I am her only victim (so far) and it looks like I am being unreasonable even though I've never been "unreasonable" before.

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    4. You might think you are her only victim, but I am sure there is an endless list and like you said people just don't always see it. I know the girl I work with has made 3 other workers leave because of her crazy PA behavior. I share an office with her and just laugh and ALWAYS appear happy and friendly. I don't let her push me around I stand up to her in a nice manner. She can't stand it, but she can't change me. Don't let her get in your head and you will be fine.

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  8. Great article!stand ur ground against this learned behavior.

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  9. Managers know who the passive-agressive employees are; everybody knows.

    They are not dealt with because to deal with them takes a lot of energy, and a highly-skilled management group and sadly - that does not describe many workplaces.

    If your workplace has good employees who work well as a team, and great leadership, then you likely are not afflicted with many dysfunctional employees.

    As another commentor said, having the P-A folks in the workplace is a symptom of a larger problem.

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  10. Good article...describes my workplace perfectly, as it is infested with super passive aggressive ppl from upper management to the lowest ppl on the totem pole....it is nothing short of being a dysfunctional hell hole.

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    1. well said, I feel the same about my work place. its like being back in the playground. managers are not bothered about dysfunction as long as the job gets done.

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  11. I've started looking for a new job because I've been labelled passive aggressive by my boss (who's wife is a therapist). Unfortunately, the person who IS passive aggressive is the one who is manipulating him and other co-workers. It's a complete nightmare and I can't wait to be out of it.
    I also laughed at the comments about opportunities to help the person. I think that is what got me in this problem again. From her clutching her chest over every small thing and saying "Oh my chest hurts" regarding things out of her control to her shouting to me that she is nothing "but a monkey" when the boss asked her to do some data entry for a few weeks to her taking things I said when I was confused at another co-worker not talking to me (because I went on vacation|??) and making them about her.... yet I am the P.A. person. I go in, do my work well and the boss tells me he is in my corner, but that there are people who don't want to work with me...... why? Because real P.A. person is a paranoid woman who has some serious emotional problems of her own. I've learned my lesson about befriending and trying to help someone like that at work. Never again.

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  12. I work with someone who is passive aggressive in a very high school mean girl kind of way. I actually confronted her about her behavior but it did not change anything. Instead, she took a ball point pen and marked my new leather purse with it and pretended that she didn't do it. She is in a position above me too, which is bad because she is terrible at her job. If I ignore her passive aggression or not talk to her, she tells everyone I am mad at her and makes herself out to be a victim. And then if I talk to her and have a bullshit conversation with her, she is happy. She's a creep!

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  13. I am a director and the secretary, who has virtually nothing to do all day--aside from check facebook, the weather, and CNN news, occasionally answer the phone, huff and puff her way down to the hall to pick up something off the printer, and load/unload the dishwasher--is just obnoxious. She watches the clock for you, acts pissy if you've been gone longer than one hour (i'm salaried and always here later than her), and is just exhausting. when she's nice, she's nice. when she's pissy, she's pissy and it's just incredibly irritating because she gets on this high horse as though she's truly something special. i've put her in her place when she's been wrong or rude, but it's just exhausting and not my style. she hardly does anything all day anyway! her arrogance astounds me. i'm just hoping she retires soon.

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  14. Omg! I am so glad to read that I am not alone. I work in a very hostile, tense environment. The passive agressiveness, gossip, and backstabbing is horrible. Earlier this year I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I have had to take a lot of time for doctor's appointments. It is getting to the point that my coworkers are probing in my business even going so far to blatantly ask me if I went to the doctor when I left early one recent afternoon. These people are my equals in the office and they like to micromanage what I am doing. One of them asks me throughout the day. I don't even want to go work. I would love to find a new job, but it is not the right time to leave at this early stage in my diagnosis and having to take so much time. I hate going to work. I hate spending the day with these to people. My boss knows and so does her boss, but I am being told to be snarky or sarcastic and rude back at them. One of them will deny that she is defensive and the other one wants to communicate arguments through email. They sit right next to each other and call each other after work. I am at my wit's end.

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  15. The one good bit of advice I read here is to not let them hide behind email. I work with a 31 year old "Assistant Director", who is truly a high schooler. When she is in charge of something, look out. What procedures were last year are no longer in effect, and you have to make due with the information she sees fit to give. She starts to cry and act like everyone is out to get her when the Executive Director calls her on the carpet. She constantly "tattles" and creates drama. It is exhausting. She has targeted me to try to get me fired because funding is questionable, and she knows her job would be one of the first eliminated. She is trying to make herself look more valuable. The ED is exhausted and all the employees are walking on egg shells. And the little tyrant bounces down the hall happy as a lamb for the chaos she has caused.

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  16. I work in a cubical where the three individuals adjacent to me all feed off of one anothers passive aggressive behavior. When one throws a negative comment out, "I have to go to this ridiculous meeting." (By the way, I planned the meeting) The other two feed into it or snicker. I do my best to ignor the behavior. Sometimes I ask if I can there is something I can do to "make things better." I'd actually like to tell them what a waste of space they are. There are very nice and productive coworkers in my department. I'm highly considering requesting to move my work station, but I fear that may make things worse for me. It is a frustrating position to be in because I just want to do my work, make a few friends along the way, and get on with my business. Why people thrive off being a pain in the you know what is beyond me.

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  17. One small solution or start to passive agressive behavior in the work place maybe education! Seminars for all workers including the passive agressive person,management and victims,to create awareness.I am sure many know this.

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  18. I work for a Professional company and believe it or not...our passive agressive personality is friends with the "boss"This person makes a point of telling everyone about it...i think the boss is also passive aggressive!

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  19. I work with someone who is temporary, covering for maternity leave. She seemed really nice at first,and we confided in each other. but she then started making snarky comments. She escalated to playing mind games by saying the boss had asked her to check my work,which i was upset about because we are at the same level and the boss had said nothing to me. When I checked with the boss he had said no such thing. I confronted her at our next meeting in front of the boss and she appologised for the 'miscommunication' as she put it. She has since only communicated by e-mail and stomps around the office, no eye contact and humms alot. so this stops any conversation. I have just found out from the boss that she has told him that I am unhappy at work and she is 'concerned'. I have expressed what I think is going on to the boss only to be dismissed as uber sensitive! can't win! time to move on, Ii'm afraid and let them stew in unhappiness, pain and dysfunction.

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  20. I work with someone like this and trust me i tried giving them a better example. It hit me right back because no managers care about what is going on with employees. He has since gained an evil accomplice who is my relief and they try to get under my skin constantly. I have no idea what i ever did to them. I've asked management for help including hr and they refuse to do anything because it's petty. People like this know the fine lines and they work socially to ruin you. There a special place in hell for people who mess with others like this.

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