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.